Remember getting picked as the main character for the Christmas play at school? No? In Sweden, the equivalent would’ve been getting chosen to be Lucia – and no, I was never picked either. By now, my grudge for this clear mischoice of star has (nearly) evaporated and I (mostly) look forward to this annual holiday with great anticipation.
Waking up at 7AM to enjoy the starboys, handmaidens and gingerbreadmen’s angelic caroling, as they march after the candle-bearing Lucia, brings about a giddy excitment for Christmas. The experience is almost more christmassy than Christmas itself. As all Swedes know the Lucia hymns by heart, many lipsync or sing along as they watch the candlelit progression pass by, creating an intimate feeling of connectivity.
For those of you who didn’t grow up in the country famous for abbreviations such as IKEA and ABBA, this will be new territory – so let’s start from the beginning. Lucia is a Swedish holiday, celebrated on December 13. Originally a Christian feast day, commemorating the martyr Lucia of Syracuse, it has today evolved into an atmospheric event involving a “Luciatåg”, or singing line-up of characters carrying candles.
Historically, December 13 was the Julian calendar’s shortest day. This, mixed with Swedish folklore about dark spirits out in force during the long night, meant that Lucia became the symbol of light and hope. All across our cucumber-shaped country, people gather in churches, town halls, schools and restaurants (even IKEA usually joins in on the celebration) on the morning of Lucia, to enjoy the joyful performance.
Although the tradition has been altered, the modern-day Lucia leading the candle-carrying progression, does however by looks still closely ressemble her 400-year-older predecessor. Legend has it that Lucia of Syracuse brought food to Christians hiding in Roman catacombs, lighting her way with a candlelit wreath on her head. And although the refuged Christians in catacombs is no longer in the picture, the legendary wreath is very much so.
Trailing behind this cherubic character are the handmaidens (‘tärnor’), glittery tinsel tied around their heads, carrying a candle each, and the star boys (‘stjärngossar’) with conelike hats and sticks adorned with stars – both dressed in long, white gowns.
Next up comes the gingerbread men (‘pepparkaksgubbar’) sporting fully-fledged gingerbread costumes and carrying lanters, and the Christmas elves (‘tomtenissar’) dressed like your average, red-and-white-loving elf.
The food-bearing-part of the tradition has also partly held on. However, today it comes in the shape of an S-shaped saffron bun called “Lussekatt” and gingerbread biscuits, instead. The ‘Lussekatt’ has become an integral part of the Lucia-celebration and many Swedes would consider it a sin to eat one at any other time of year. These sweets are enjoyed together with tiny cups of “glögg” (mulled wine) into which you drop some almonds and raisins, or some black coffee (preferably brewed, and very, very strong).
One way in which the tradition has been altered – and for the better – is the way in which the Lucia is crowned today. The event, which takes place on both national and local levels, used to be voted for based on headshots. This beauty contest-like way of delegation has by now been replaced by a fairer method: a random lottery. In schools or daycare centres you also commonly see several Lucias today, to prevent feelings of exclusion or favouritism amongst the kids.
This dreamy, wholesome and soul-warming tradition is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives. And thanks to technology, that is today possible from pretty much anywhere in the world, since many churches live-stream their performances online.
To enjoy the national performance, hop onto Sweden’s public service broadcaster Svt Play at 6AM tomorrow morning. The early morning will be worth it, the sweet serenades filling your heart with Christmas spirit and the dimmed lights of the venue allowing your sleepy eyes to slowly adjust to their awakened state at a pleasant pace.
If you’d wish to take it a step further, Swedifying it to a full-blown degree, you could even purchase pre-made Lussekatter (the traditional Lucia-sweet) straight from the freezers at your nearest IKEA. Although some may argue that it’s too early for glögg at this hour, the customary drink can also be found at the homeware-giant, for anyone interested.
Featured Image Credit: norrkoping.se