On the darkest day, a tale of two “Lucys”

Santa Lucia and Lussi-Long Night: the Saint and Witch battling for control of the solstice

Photo: Claudia Gründer / Wkimedia Commons We all know about this Lucia, with a crown of light on her head. But what about the darker Lussi?

Photo: Claudia Gründer / Wkimedia Commons
We all know about this Lucia, with a crown of light on her head. But what about the darker Lussi?

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

It’s a tradition that marks the beginning of the Christmas season. On December 13, Norwegian and Swedish girls wearing candlelit wreaths portray and celebrate Santa Lucia, a fourth century Sicilian girl who became a Christian martyr.

Santa Lucia pageants also remain popular among many Scandinavians in the U.S., such as the one held each year at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where Santa Lucia and her escorts are elected by the student body, and Santa Lucia processions at Sons of Norway julebord events.

Not emerging in Sweden until the 1700s, Santa Lucia festivities were originally observed mainly among the upper classes. The celebration wasn’t given much attention in Norway until World War II, when it was imported as a movement to try to bring light in a time of darkness as a protest against German occupation.

But there’s a far older winter tradition that once cast fear into the hearts of Norwegian peasants and rural folk. It revolved around another Lussi—this one not a saint, more like a witch, or a reverse version of the sun goddess that was revered in ancient Rome this time of year. (The very name comes from the Latin word for light, lux.)

She shares the December 13 date for good reason: under the old calendar, that was the date of the Winter Solstice. Thus, it was known in Norway as Lussi Long-Night—Lussi Langnatte—longest night of the year.

For 500 years, December 13 marked the solstice. This was the date when the sun turned in its course, bringing on longer days. When a new calendar became official in 1700, the solstice was moved to its present date of Dec. 21. But Lussi Night remained the same.

Yule—the pre-Christian winter celebration—was the most important holiday in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. And many of the old traditions, some from the Viking Age, others from ancient Rome, persisted, especially in the rural areas.

All work had to be done by December 13, especially threshing, slaughtering, cleaning, and the spinning of yarn. If people hadn’t finished all their work, they feared Lussi would smash their chimneys.

Such terrifying legends fed the imagination of country folk for centuries, and Lussi had company—a whole array of terrifying creatures, trolls, and undead spirits, kidnapping anyone foolish enough to venture outside. Known as the oskorei, the wild hunt, this dreaded winter parade was on the lookout for earthly victims.

In her book “Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land,” Kathleen Stokker of Luther College notes that these folk legends “told of individuals being snatched up, carried away and then turned loose, dazed and manhandled, in some far-off place; other victims disappeared forever.” In her book, Stokker writes of the centuries of folklore that have contributed to Norway’s unique identity.

Especially features such as Lussi Langnatte, when most Norwegians would be afraid to leave their homes. Someone had to stay awake all night to protect the farm on this, the darkest night of the year. People hung axes, knives, or scissors over the doors of their homes, and painted crosses everywhere.

Children were especially terrified of Lussi, for it was said that if they misbehaved, she would come and snatch them away. On the eve of December 13, children would write the word “Lussi” on doors, fences, and walls. “Lussi fires” used to be burned in many parts of northern Europe at that time to celebrate the changing of the sun’s course.

As for Santa Lucia, one of a scant handful of saints honored in Protestant Scandinavian countries, her festival of light seems more appealing to many than the nightmare of the wild hunt.

The Nordic observation of St. Lucy is first attested in the Middle Ages and continued after the Protestant Reformation in the 1520s and 1530s, although the modern celebration is only about 200 years old.

While her story is set on a far-off Mediterranean island, there is a more localized angle. During the Middle Ages, there was a severe famine in the Swedish province of Varmland. It was said that a large white vessel loaded with food appeared on Lake Vanern. At the helm was a young woman in white, her head encircled by a crown of radiant beams. The ship vanished as soon as it was unloaded.

Lussinatten has largely been forgotten in Norway since the beginning of the 20th century, although it is still remembered as an ominous night and perhaps celebrated in some remote areas.

But the day of the Winter Solstice is still the shortest day of the year, and in the far North, the light may last for a few hours at best. The day of Winter Solstice is hardly a day at all, but is more like a short flicker of dark blue light at noon. The sun is not seen.

Norse myth tells that the sun was a goddess named Sol or Sunna, who drove a chariot across the sky on an eternal flight to escape the devouring darkness. Throughout history, there has been some goddess figure associated with the return of the sun. As for Lussi’s dark and terrifying characteristics, perhaps she is the victim of gossip, the telling of tall tales by those who don’t want to see her receive the honor she may deserve as a sun goddess, bringing the return of the sun.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.