A victory for light in winter’s dark gloom

Saint Lucia is the Italian saint filling in for Freya as defender of light in Scandinavia

A girl dressed as Sankta Lucia.

Photo: Bengt Nyman / Flickr
A Sankta Lucia celebration in Stockholm in 2011.

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

On December 13, thousands upon thousands of Scandinavians will be celebrating Saint Lucia’s Day. Why would large numbers of Swedes, Norwegians, and other Scandinavians celebrate the feast day of an Italian saint who died in the fourth century? Mostly Lutheran Scandinavians usually pay little attention to saints of the Christian pantheon. Even odder, this Christmas-season event involves the solemn singing of an Italian Neapolitan tune entitled “Santa Lucia.”

There is a mystery here and I tried to solve it, but it is a deep one and I think I was only partially successful in untangling the strands of the Lucia story, especially its connections to ancient pagan Scandinavian beliefs and practices.

Although it has deep roots in the Scandinavian past, the celebration of Saint Lucia in its present form is a relatively recent tradition, one that can be traced back only to the middle of the 18th century. The first recorded celebration of Saint Lucia’s Day is from a manor house located in Västergötland, a province of west-central Sweden. On December 13 of 1764, the oldest daughter of the house rose up early and donned a crown of lingonberry branches complete with nine burning candles and a white shift with a red sash. She then went from room to room bringing morning greetings and breakfast to the members of the household and then going out to the barn to feed the animals as well.

For many years it remained a local Christmas custom and was unknown to most Swedes until 1893 when the celebration of Saint Lucia was featured in a public performance at the famous Skansen open-air folk museum. Soon thereafter many Swedish families began their own observance of Saint Lucia’s Day, but at first it remained a family affair where the oldest daughter brought coffee and sweet buns called lussekatter (“light cats,” S-shaped saffron buns—for more on this see the recipe at www.norwegianamerican.com/food/lussekatter/) to the members of her family. In 1924 a Swedish musician wrote Swedish lyrics to an early 19th-century Neapolitan tune about Saint Lucia and singing the Swedish version of this song became another tradition associated with the day.

In 1927 a Stockholm newspaper held a public contest to choose a citywide Lucia plus her attendants, and the celebration of Saint Lucia’s Day moved from the family home to every school, village, town, and city in the country, including those in Swedish-speaking areas of Finland. Denmark did not embrace Saint Lucia’s Day until 1944 when it was promoted as a way “to bring light in a time of darkness” during the German occupation. Norway only began to observe Saint Lucia’s Day after World War II, and like Sweden and Denmark, it wrote its own unique lyrics to accompany the original Neapolitan Santa Lucia tune.

Today Saint Lucia’s Day, with some minor variations, is celebrated by holding a procession led by the “Lucia,” the lussebrud (Lucy Bride in Swedish), who wears a crown of lingonberry branches fitted out with four to nine lit candles and a white gown with a red sash around her waist. The white gown is supposed to symbolize the virginity of Saint Lucia and the red sash the blood of her martyrdom. Carrying a single candle, she leads a procession of similarly white-clad and sashed girls, also carrying single candles, who represent her attendants. Joining with the girls in the procession are boys with tall conical hats and wands with stars at their end; these are the star boys or magi. Many processions also include tomten or julenissen (Swedish and Norwegian takes on Christmas elves). During the procession, Lucia and her retinue sing the song “Santa Lucia.” After the end of the procession, Lucia leads the attendants, star boys, and tomten or nisser in other songs, usually Christmas carols and songs about Saint Stephen, which are sometimes initiated by the star boys. Following the opening procession, Lucia and her followers often visit retirement homes, senior care centers, and hospitals to cheer the inhabitants and give out lussekatter buns and pepperkaker.

So what are the deep roots of this relatively new celebration in the Scandinavian past? First, it is important to note the date of Saint Lucia Day. It is December 13, which in the Medieval Julian Calendar was considered the shortest day of the year and thus the solstice, a dark and dangerous time when the Scandinavians of old thought the sun actually stopped its annual circuit of the heavens. In this in-between time, awful things could happen and demons, gnomes, trolls, and spirits of the dead roamed the earth, often snatching people who dared to go outside. This horde of evil beings was led by the enchantress Lussi, who had the ability to fly down chimneys and whisk away bad children.

Until well into the 19th century, Norwegians would hide away in their houses on the night of December 13 and paint crosses on their doors. If they could afford them, they also lit candles throughout the night to ward off the lussiferda (Lussi’s horde of followers). In Sweden, villagers often held torchlight parades and then set massive bonfires to discourage Lussi and her band from descending on their houses. According to Professor Kathleen Stokker, author of Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, one of the original symbolic functions of Lucia’s halo of lights was to scare away any evil demons that may have entered the house prior to the morning of December 13.

Well before the celebration of Saint Lucia became the vogue in Sweden, it was common for groups of children and young people to go from house to house as lussegubbe on the night of December 13, in a more benign embodiment of the more fearsome lussiferda. They would sing songs in return for treats, and if old enough, drafts of aquavit.

Some scholars believe that the celebration of Saint Lucia Day may have its origins in Norse pagan conceptions of the struggle between light and darkness. One 19th-century Lutheran pastor suggested that Saint Lucia was really Freya, the Norse goddess “dressed up” as a Christian saint. Freya used to cross the heavens in a chariot pulled by two blue cats, which might explain why the Saint Lucia Day buns are called lussekatter (light cats). As a goddess she was associated with cats and light. She was thought to ignite the northern lights when she took her cat-drawn chariot out at night. Freya was also the owner of the famed magical necklace called Brisingamen, which represented the essence of fire and shone like the sun. Freya was known as the “shining bride of the gods.”

Others link the Saint Lucia celebration to the ancient worship of Frigg, the wife of Odin, who some believe was perhaps just another personification of Freya. Frigg could both foresee the future and change the fates of mankind with her spindle and spinning wheel, and she gave birth to Balder, who was the Norse god of light. There is some speculation that the legend of lussi and her band of demons represents a Medieval Christian inversion of the story of Freya/Frigg and their companion gods.

No matter the exact sources of the celebration’s ancestral roots, Saint Lucia’s Day in present-day Scandinavia is less about worship of Saint Lucia of old Italy and more about the ancient and continued Scandinavian obsession with light and dark in the depths of winter. Both the Swedish and Norwegian opening verses of “Santa Lucia” confirm this emphasis on matters of light and dark. Here is a translation of the first verses of the Swedish version of the song:

Night walks with a heavy step
Round yard and hearth
As sun departs from earth
Shadows are brooding
There in our dark house
Walking with lit candles
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

The same theme of a foreboding darkness lit up by Lucia’s halo of candles is also found in the first lines of the Norwegian version:

Black night is falling in stalls and homes
The sun has gone away, the shadows are threatening
Into our dark house enters with lit candles
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

What is clear from the lyrics of these songs is that Saint Lucia has been adopted by Scandinavians as the personification of the light that wards off the enveloping darkness of winter in Northern Europe. She gives hope for the sun’s rebirth after the passing of the longest night of the calendar year. Lucia’s name means “the luminous” or “of the light,” making her the perfect saint for the job in a Christian Scandinavian world—a job that may have been filled in more ancient times by her pagan predecessors Freya or Frigg. Santa Lucia’s Day on December 13 now marks a joyful gateway to the Christmas season with a celebration of life and light that illuminates the dark gloom of the Scandinavian winter and gives delight to both children and adults.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.