December 13 is Saint Lucia Day – the Festival of Light – which marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavian countries. Saint Lucia (Saint Lucy) is one of the only saints celebrated by the overwhelmingly Lutheran Nordic peoples of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland. According to legend, Lucia was from Syracuse on the island of Sicily. She was one of the earliest Christian martyrs, killed by the Romans in AD 304. In church, young women sing the traditional Saint Lucia song which describes how Lucia overcame the darkness and found the light:
The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
Some of the practices associated with Saint Lucia Day predate the adoption of Christianity in Scandinavia, so they retain many of the indigenous Germanic pagan midwinter elements. For example, the Yuletide holiday was a pre-Christian festival at which Nordic peoples celebrated the winter solstice with large bonfires meant to scare off evil spirits and to bring back the sun. After converting to Christianity sometime around AD 1000, the Norse folk incorporated the legend of Saint Lucia into their celebration. The modern festival of light combines elements of both pagan and Christian traditions.
The tradition of Saint Lucia’s Day owes its popularity in the Nordic countries to the extreme change in daylight hours between the seasons in this region. In Scandinavian history, the night of Saint Lucia was known to be the longest night of the year, although that was changed when the Gregorian calendar was reformed. In these far northern countries, the winter solstice brought with it awareness and fear of the forces of the dark. Like much of Scandinavian folklore and even religiosity, Saint Lucia’s Day is centered on the struggle between light and darkness. During a dark winter in Scandinavia, the idea of light overcoming darkness, and the promise of returning sunlight has been welcomed by the locals for centuries.
Originally the observance of the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun, the Saint Lucia festival is meant to bring hope and light during the long winter days. In traditional celebrations, Saint Lucia comes as a young woman dressed in a white robe and red sash, wearing a wreath or crown of candles. The celebrations and processions on Saint Lucia Day are illuminated by thousands of candles. Families traditionally observe Saint Lucia’s Day in their homes by having one of their daughters (usually the eldest) dress in white and serve baked goods such as ginger cookies and sweet rolls with coffee or mulled wine.
Discussion Question: Which traditions related to Saint Lucia’s Day are similar to our Advent and Christmas celebrations in the United States today?