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A Sicilian saint for Sweden

· St Lucy celebrated on 13 December ·

You may have thought that the one well known saint in (post)-Protestant Sweden would be St Bridget — the only Swedish woman to be officially canonized by the Catholic Church.

But that is not the case. There is another saint who plays a far greater role in Swedish society today — Santa Lucia, the Sicilian maiden who in the fourth century was blinded and martyred for her faith. In virtually every school, in every pre-school and day care center, in many hotels, restaurants, shops and workplaces of every kind, there is a Santa Lucia procession on 13 December. Many a Nobel Laureate in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel for the ceremony has been surprised to find a white-clad girl with a flaming crown, carrying a tray with hot spiced wine, saffron buns and ginger snaps, to his doorstep in the early morning. I myself remember being dragged out of bed as a child, somewhat reluctantly, in the wee hours by my parents and taken “lucia-ing” to my grandparents. In terms of appearance, I was ideally suited for the part — long blond hair down to my waist, the perfect foil for the crown of lingonberry leaves and live candles.

The red silk sash traditionally worn with the white Lucia robe is supposed to symbolize the martyrdom of Santa Lucia. But I would not say that all Swedes know about the connection to the Sicilian saint. It might, in fact, be fair to speak of two traditions — one Sicilian, one Scandinavian. Like Christmas, the Santa Lucia tradition in Sweden is a blend of Christian and pre-Christian elements. The name Lucia is connected to the Latin word lux, light. Winters are long and dark in Scandinavia and the tradition to celebrate a feast of hope for the return of light is probably a very old one. In the 14th century, Sweden and Finland followed the Julian calendar, where the feast of Santa Lucia coincided with the Winter Solstice, the longest and darkest night of the year. Folklore says that during this night, trolls and other supernatural beings roam forests and villages and animals can speak. In rural Sweden, all Christmas preparations were supposed to be finished by this time — the pig slaughtered, the sausages filled, the bread and sweet buns baked, the ale brewed and the aquavit distilled. Santa Lucia was the first taste of the Christmas season. Drinking, alas, is also a feature of young people’s celebrating of Lucia. This, in fact, also goes back a long way — traditionally young people went caroling to Santa Lucia, expecting not only food or perhaps a small coin, but also a dram — or several.

To say that Swedes — often looked upon as a modernistic, if not to say futuristic people — are fanatically attached to the Santa Lucia tradition is not an exaggeration. And at the core of the tradition, I think, is singing. The Santa Lucia song itself is, of course, imported from Italy But traditionally, Santa Lucia and her maids-in-waiting also sing old Swedish hymns and songs, some with roots in the Middle Ages and sung also in Catholic churches, such as “Det är en ros utsprungen” (German: “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”).

Cultural customs have origins, but they can also transcend borders. For the last four years, Mtarfa, a small Catholic parish in the island of Malta whose parish church is consecrated to Santa Lucia, has celebrated a Maltese version of the Swedish feast. And for the last two, a Santa Lucia procession has walked up the aisle of St Peter’s Basilica, singing a Swedish Advent hymn, “Bereden väg för Herran” (Prepare the way for the Lord), to an ancient tune inspired by Gregorian chant.

But the beauty of a traditional Santa Lucia celebration was perhaps best expressed by an ex-pupil of my father’s. She fainted during the procession, and when she woke up she said: “It was beautiful. So beautiful. The white robes. The candles. The music and singing. I thought I was in heaven. But then I saw the Head Mistress.”

Ulla Gudmundson, Former Swedish Ambassador to the Holy See

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