Thursday, December 13, 2007


Today I feel far from home. Lucia day, the festival of lights.

One good thing about moving about 15 degrees south (and over the ocean) is that we get real winter but still lots of daylight. In Uppsala the sun rises at 8:40 am on December 13. It sets at 14:48. Here in southern Ontario I don't experience the winter darkness, and I'm still slightly surprised every day when I have breakfast and it's already dawn.

In the Nordic darkness we eagerly await the return of the light. Lucia is the first celebration of this. I might have some historical details wrong, but according to my understanding before the calendar reform December 13 was the morning after the longest night of the year. Therefore it has a special significance in folk lore, as we might expect. The day has the name of the Saint Lucia from Syracuse, but the celebrations and the light queen have almost nothing to do with her -- it's just a coincidence of the calendar.

In my world, a proper Lucia celebration is to stay up all night and bake saffron buns (they are yellow and shaped as symbols for the sun, heavy symbolism here) and ginger cookies, and maybe watch some movies with friends. In the early morning it's time to dress up in white gowns and carry candles and go wake people up with singing. Of course I haven't done it this way for many years, but as recently as two years ago I woke up hearing a Lucia procession in the building. They stopped on every floor and sang a couple of songs. I opened the door to my apartment and they gave me ginger snaps.

In Sweden the Lucia celebration is an almost entirely secular thing, if not outright pagan, with some small Christian decorations since it's also a celebration of the promise of Christmas coming soon. Here in a foreign country I have actually participated in a Canadian interpretation or adaptation of Lucia, which was very different. I was involved as an expert or consultant since I know the traditional song and could sing it. The rest of the ceremony was nothing like anything I have seen at home.

There was a story teller, who told a child-friendly version of the story of Saint Lucia (with most of the violence edited out). We learned that she was very brave and generous, and that here husband hated her for giving all her things to the poor and therfore turned her in to the evil emperor. Then entered the Lucia, looking just as they do at home in a white gown with a red sash and crown with candles. While I was singing she lit some candles and lanterns, and then she sang a song that is attributed to the Saint when she was in prison. Then there was a prayer for people in prison and for light in our lives. After this we moved to another room and had a "traditional Lucia breakfast". (They had no saffron in their buns, and they ate them with cheese and jam...)

The Sankta Lucia song in English and German translation.

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