SCANDINAVIA: With short days and long cold nights, for most people winter is not an especially appealing time to visit Scandinavia. There is, however, a Christmas tradition in that part of the world dating as far back as the 3rd century which cannot help but bring tears to your eyes when you witness it.
Known as Saint Lucy’s Day, or Santa Lucia, the Christian feast day is celebrated on December 13 each year to commemorate a martyr who brought “food and aid to Christians hiding in catacombs.”
Santa Lucia is primarily a Nordic celebration
However, the feast day does occur in a few other places around the world.
The feast once coincided with the Winter Solstice honoring the shortest day of the year, and therefore, much like Midsummers in Scandinavia, which pays homage to the longest day of the year, this, too, is a festival of light.
Nobody knows for sure how “Lucy’s Day” came to play such a significant role in Scandinavian folklore, but according to legend, Lucy was born around 283 CE to wealthy parents. Her father, who was of noble Roman heritage, died when she was only five years old.
Years later, an influential compendium of saint’s biographies recorded that Lucy was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agatha in Sicily. The young girl’s mother was miraculously cured.
Giving thanks by giving to the poor
Seizing upon the opportunity created by the miracle cure, Lucy convinced her mother to let her distribute a large portion of the family riches to the poor.
Lucy’s downfall came later when she refused to compromise her virginity in her pending arranged marriage. Following the rejection, her intended husband quickly denounced her to the Roman authorities.
However, even under the threat of being taken to a brothel, Lucy stood firm insisting she would continue to speak out. Regardless of what punishment she might receive.
Eventually, her enemies stacked materials around her in an effort to consume her by fire. Lucy showed no fear. One Roman soldier is said to have pushed a spear through her throat in an effort to halt Lucy’s denouncements. But even that had no effect.
John Henry Blunt wrote that Lucy’s plight was not unlike that of many 4th-century virgin martyrs.
The other most common story about Saint Lucy is the one referenced above where she was providing aid to Christians in hiding from the reign of terror under the rule of Roman Emperor Diocletian. In order to carry as many supplies as possible, Lucy attached candles to a wreath which she wore on her head, thus allowing both hands to be free.
In writing about Lucy’s martyrdom, Charles Macfarlane said,
“Her chief offense may have been that she bestowed the whole of her large wealth on the poor instead of sharing it with her suitor who accused her to the governor of professing Christianity.”
Today, the candle wreath is still an honored tradition as is the wearing of a solid white dress with a red sash. The white signifies the purity of Christ’s baptismal robe while the red is symbolic of the blood Christ shed on the cross to save mankind.
For a while, there was confusion about which day to celebrate the Feast of Light. The problem occurred during the transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.
Even as late as the mid-18th century Scandinavia observed the longest night of the year to coincide with the Winter Solstice using the Julian Calendar as its guide.
With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, there were discrepancies ranging up to as many as eight days difference. Eventually, December 13th was agreed upon rather than eight days later on December 21st, primarily in order to allow more time between the Santa Lucia and Christmas.
The celebration of Santa Lucia
Though modern observances of Santa Lucia in Scandinavia are only about 200 years old, its popularity is attested to in the Middle Ages and continued well after the Protestant Reformation in the 1520s and 1530s.
The Santa Lucia celebration is essentially the same in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland with a few individual cultural twists thrown in that are particular to each nation.
The ceremony commences when a young woman is chosen to lead a procession of youthful females while holding a candle and wearing a wreath of lighted candles in her hair. The others follow, each with a candle in her hands.
Today the candles are small flashlights, but during the original rituals, real candles were used.
The hand-held candle represents the fire that failed to consume Saint Lucy when she was sentenced to be burned at the stake.
Oddly enough, if the tradition is unfamiliar to many people, the music is well known to almost everyone because it is the melody of the traditional Neopolitan Italian song Santa Lucia.
While the lyrics differ from country to country, the music remains the same. In Italy the words describe the view from Santa Lucia in Naples.
The various Scandinavian versions each depict in their own language the light which Lucia used to overcome the darkness.
Santa Lucia Celebration – an endearing tradition
Though not regarded as a national holiday in Scandinavia, the Santa Lucia celebration is an endearing tradition that captivates anyone with the good fortune to witness the ceremony.
Other countries following the tradition are Italy, Malta, Croatia, Hungary, Venezuela, the tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia and most of the Scandinavian regions in the upper mid-west of the United States.
Santa Lucia is little known to Americans, but should you ever have an opportunity to experience its compelling charm, be sure to bring along a box of Kleenex.. You’ll be glad you did.
Lead image: Santa Lucia ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden is a Scandinavian tradition (en.wikipedia.org) Saint Lucia ceremony (wikipedia) -Luciafeier in einer schwedischen Kirchehttps://commons.wikimedia.org/
Updated and reprinted from December 12, 2017
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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