You know you’ve been in Sweden too long…when the sight of a young woman with lit candles stuck to her head no longer disturbs you.
In Sweden and in Swedish communities in North America, thousands of girls will don the traditional white dress and red sash to take part in Lucia Day. Atop the heads of many girls will burn candles in a special crown worn for the holiday–although in Sweden most candles used these days are the battery-powered kind, due to–as the Swedes have discovered–the highly flammable nature of girls’ hair.
The crown of candles shines a light of hope during the darkest nights of the year, which in Sweden can be about 23 hours long.
Saint Lucia was a young Christian who lived in Syracuse, Italy during the time of Diocletian–the infamous persecutor of early Christians–in the late 3rd century. When her mother became ill, Lucia prayed for her. Upon her mother’s recovery Lucia took a vow of chastity and gave her dowry to the poor, thus earning the rancor of a particularly vindictive suitor.
Some stories say the angry suitor outed her as a Christian in court, which then ordered her execution. Other stories say the suitor tried to kill her himself. Either way, they tried to kill her by fire, but she would not burn. Her eyes were poked out (some say she poked out her own eyes and gave them to the suitor) but new eyes grew back in their place. Men and oxen tried to drag her from the town, but she could not be budged.
Finally, on December 13, 304 A.D., the angry suitor stabbed Lucia with a sword in the neck and killed her. She was 20 years old.
Another legend tells of St. Lucia helping the ancient Christians in the catacombs, where torches were needed to navigate the dark tunnels. To keep her hands free to bring more food and drink, Lucia attached candles to a wreath she wore on her head.
So how did this Catholic saint from Italy become the heroine of a Protestant country in Scandinavia?
It may have to do with the date. Back when Sweden was Catholic and used the Julian calendar, Lucia’s feast day, December 13, was the longest night of the year. In pagan times the winter solstice was considered an ominous night to be out, when trolls and supernatural spirits wandered the earth. Lucia, whose name means light, became a symbol of the victory of light over darkness. Today, Swedish towns hold pageants to pick the “Lucia Bride”. Rituals similar to Luciatagen have taken place in Sweden in one form or another for over a thousand years, but it wasn’t until the 1927 Lucia procession in Stockholm, organized by a local newspaper, that the tradition as we know it spread throughout Sweden and Swedish-speaking Finland.
Lussekatter, or saffron buns, are a staple of the holiday. Made with one of the world’s most expensive spices, saffron dough is filled with cinnamon, sugar, raisins and chopped nuts. The oldest (or youngest) girl in the family serves these goodies.
A more recent Lucia Day tradition is to wake up unsuspecting Nobel Prize winners sleeping at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. The Nobel Prize is awarded three days earlier on December 10.