Swedes celebrate the legend of Saint Lucia on December 13th. In the Julian calendar this marked the winter solstice, the longest night of the year that falls on December 21st in the modern, Gregorian calendar. Lucia is celebrated as a festival of lights with singing processions, saffron buns, gingerbread cookies and mulled wine. The Lucia tradition is quite new in Sweden. The first recorded celebration occurred in 1764 in Skovde, in western Sweden.

Origins

Saint Lucia – or Lucy - was a Christian martyr from Syracuse in eastern Sicily who refused to marry a pagan and used her dowry to help poor people. The day of her death is celebrated by Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Lutherans on December 13th. In Italy, Santa Lucia is the patron saint of fishermen. The Swedish legend sees Lucia as a beautiful lady in a white gown and a glowing light surrounding her head who brought food to starving people on the shores of a lake. The name Lucia derives from the Latin “lux” for “light” but is also associated with Lucifer, a Roman name for Satan that originally meant “morning star.” Swedish legend also places Lucia as Adam’s first wife who later consorted with Lucifer. Their descendants became an evil underworld race.

Pagan Tradition

According to pagan tradition, the winter solstice was marked with supernatural beings wandering about and animals speaking in human tongues. This was also the feast of Freya, the Norse goddess of beauty and fertility. Both animals and humans needed to eat more food at this time. The Freya feast became known as Sankta Lucia when Sweden adopted Christianity and today it marks the beginning of the Christmas season.

Lights, Gowns and Stars

The Sankta Lucia celebration begins with a young person, traditionally the eldest daughter in a household, who is chosen by family and friends to be the Lucia Bride, or “Lussebruden” in Swedish. She dresses in a long white gown with a red sash -- the martyrdom symbol -- around her waist. She wears a crown made of lignon berry -- a Scandinavian berry similar to but smaller than a cranberry -- branches supporting lighted candles or battery powered lights. Handmaidens, or tarnor, dressed in white gowns carrying candles accompany Lucia. Boys join the procession also dressed in white gowns and wear tall paper cones on their heads. They are called “star boys” or “stjarnrgossen” in Swedish because they carry stars attached to sticks. There are a number of Lucia songs for the feast day. The most well known has Swedish lyrics sung to the tune of the traditional Sicilian “Santa Lucia” song.

Food and Drink

Swedes bake or buy saffron buns and gingerbread cookies to eat with coffee or mulled wine for the Lucia feast. Saffron buns -- called “Lussebullar” meaning “Lucia buns” or “Lussekatter” meaning “Lucia cats” in Swedish -- are S-shaped, saffron-flavored rolls baked to celebrate Advent as well as Lucia. Sicilians also celebrate Santa Lucia with S-shaped bread buns called “Pane Siciliano.” Gingerbread cookies -- called “Luciapepparkakor” in Swedish -- are cut in the shapes of people, animals or hearts and sometimes decorated with frosting. “Glogg” is the Swedish name for the mulled wine that accompanies the buns and cookies. It is made with orange peel and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom and sometimes fortified with vodka, akvavit or brandy.