Sankta Lucia in Sweden is one of the most iconic festivity which mixes the ancient marking of the longest night with the celebration of a christian saint who brought light and hope.
The Saint’s Bio
Lucia is a Christian saint from Syracuse, Sicily and lived between 283–304. The story goes that her father died when she was 5 and she looked after her sick mother who she convinced to go on pilgrimage to Catania where Saint Agatha, around 50 years earlier, was martyred. Saint Agatha spoke to Lucia in her dream telling her that this miracle was granted to her mother as gratitude for her devotion. To thank God and Saint Agatha for the miracle, Lucia chose to continue her veneration and help fellow Christians. She did so by going into the Catacombs where christians hid from persecution to bring them food. In order to maximise the amount of food she could carry she wore candles on her head which connects to the current representations of Lucia in the Nordic tradition. This devote behaviour together with her vow of virginity to thank God angered her wealthy and most of all, pagan husband. Needless to say she did not marry him out of choice instead she did it because of marriage that Lucia’s mother had arranged as before she was miracled she feared her illness was not going to allow her to live much longer and thought her daughter needed someone to protect her when she could not. Her husband however reported Lucia to the Roman authorities and as Christianity was illegal at the time, she was convicted and several attempts were made to execute her. They only succeeded in killing her when they finally allowed her to get given the Christian rights.
The Nordic Tradition
Today across the nordic countries she is celebrated as the young woman with a crown of candles on her head and the reason she has these candles was that she used them to light her way as she went into the Catacombs where christians hid to bring them food and in order to maximise the amount of food she could carry she wore candles on her head.
The Scandinavian Lucia, traditionally used to carry saffron buns (Luciabulle) and other seasonal biscuits recalling the story of the saint who would bring food to her fellow Christians who, unlike her, where poor and hiding in the Catacombs not to be persecuted by the romans. Today Lucia in Sweden is tendentially a very nordic looking girl with long blond hair which would carry a candles on her head and who most likely looks nothing like the original Sicilian martyr.
This festivity, as many others in Christian Scandinavia, is highly important because it dates back to pre-Christian times when there were important rituals marking the longest night of the year. When the Christian cult came to Sweden the Julian calendar was still in use and the 14th of December would be the shortest day so it was easy for the multinational christianity to integrate ancient nordic rituals within the faith by re-branding it as a festivity in honour of a Christian saint.
The song sung by the choir ‘Sankta Lucia’ is a Swedish rendition of the original song in Neapolitan then translated into Italian and although the lyrics differ quite a lot the message of light and hope remains.
It is fascinating to watch this ancient ritual that has been kept alive by Christianity and even in one of the parts of the world with the highest percentage of atheists Lucia brings back a certain sense of spirituality and religiousness that is not really well understood or conceptualised rather it is done, for traditions sake and lived collectively appreciating the beauty and the magical contrast of the cold and darkness outside to the warm glow of the candles and heartwarming singing of traditional songs.