St. Lucia Day: A Scandinavian Tradition

One of the things I love about the holiday season is that there are so many, well, holidays. Hanukkah usually takes place around this time of year, and sometimes Eid al-Fitr takes place during this time of year, as does Diwali.

Plus, there are any number of Christian observances surrounding Christmas. There’s a lot going on throughout the month of December. But one of the celebrations that has always intrigued me was St. Lucia Day.

St. Lucia Day takes place on December 13 each year, and is celebrated in Scandinavia. My own small bit of Scandinavian heritage makes it even more interesting to me, especially since St. Lucia (also St. Lucy) was Sicilian, born in Syracuse. It makes sense that in Italy and Sicily St. Lucia Day is observed. Why is her holiday celebrated so steadfastly in Scandinavia?

Origins of St. Lucia Day

The story of Saint Lucy is rather dramatic. Basically, she went to a shrine in Sicily to pray for her mother. After a visit by an angel converted her to Christianity, she refused to marry and give up her virginity. As a result, her would-be husband denounced her. In an effort to get her to denounce her beliefs, soldiers threatened to drag her off to a brothel. But they couldn’t move her. So they stacked wood around her and tried to burn her at the stake. Saint Lucy kept on discoursing, even when a spear thrust took her in the throat. It wasn’t until she was administered the Sacrament that she was able to die.

There are a number of stories about why this saint is so celebrated in Scandinavia, when so many other Saints’ feast days go unobserved. Part of the speculation is that this is a festival that takes place in the dark of winter, near the Solstice. Indeed, under the Julian calendar, December 13 was the date of the Solstice (although many argue that St. Lucia Day was celebrate on December 13 before the Julian calendar was in effect).

In any case, there is speculation that the idea of another holiday, celebrated in winter, would appeal to those so far North. Indeed, the first recorded observation of St. Lucia Day in Nordic countries was recorded during the Middle Ages. Many of the modern trappings of the day, though, are no more than 200 years old.

St. Lucia Day Celebrations

St. Lucia Day celebrations are marked by church activities, and other community events. There is a traditional song, sung in various native Scandinavian languages by women, that tells of Saint Lucy’s effort to overcome darkness and find light.

Additionally, the eldest daughter of the house wears a white robe, and a crown of candles. She brings her parents special buns, and drinks. Additionally, in Sweden, there are processions of young women and girls carrying candles at night. This tradition was started in early 1927, when cities began electing an official Lucia. In the Church of Norway, St. Lucia Day has been added to the Advent liturgy. In the United States, the ELCA, which has many Scandinavian congregations, makes it a point to set aside a Sunday during Advent to honor Saint Lucy.

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