Monday, December 15, 2008

St. Lucia's Day

St. Lucia's Day is a very popular holiday in Sweden, but not often celebrated elsewhere. Perhaps this has something to do with St. Nicholas' Day being only a week before, and St. Nick being very popular around the world.

St. Lucia was a virgin Italian martyr from the early 4th century. This is why St. Lucia is depicted wearing a white robe (for virginity) with a red sash (for her martyrdom). Not much is really known about Lucia's life, but it is said that she resisted marriage to a pagan man for three years before she was finally put to death by the Roman government. One might well wonder why an Italian martyr would be so popular in Sweden. Well, as legend has it, during a great famine in Syracuse, St. Lucia appeared (after her death) on the darkest night of the year (then celebrated as December 13th), which also happens to be the date of her martyrdrom. She wore a crown of candles on her head to leave her hands free to carry baskets of bread for the starving peasants. It is believed that Viking traders to Italy may have taken this legend back with them to their homeland. It's easy to see why the Scandinavians, who suffered from many famines over the centuries, paritcularly in the harsh winters, might draw upon this legend in hard times, praying to St. Lucia to deliver them. Lucia's name, which means "light," is also one reason why she may have become popular with a people who dwell in immense darkness during the long winter months.

Nowadays, there are not many Catholics left in Sweden where the majority of people are Lutheran. So, while Swedes no longer pary to St. Lucia, they continue to venerate her and celebrate her feast day with great pageantry. Likely, St. Lucia's Day provided an opportune replacement for the much-beloved Winter Solstice celebration of the Vikings. I could write a huge post about all the traditions in Sweden, but instead of a cultural history lesson, I think I'd rather give you a taste of how my family celebrates the holiday to give you ideas for how you might be able to incorporate St. Lucia's Day into your family's Christmas season.

St. Lucia's Day is celebrated on December 13th with the celebration beginning before sunrise. While it is still dark, the oldest girl in the household bakes Lucia bullar (pictured above), or St. Lucia's buns, and brews hot coffee and cocoa for her family. She dresses in a white robe with a red sash and puts a crown like an evergreen wreath with (electric) candles in it upon her head. Then, in the darkness, she goes to each bedroom, delivering the warm drinks and treats to her family, on a tray.

One day, Sophia will be old enough to be our family's Lucia, but until then, I still serve as the Lucia girl in our household. I look forward to the day when I can make Sophia a little white robe and red sash to wear for this special holiday celebration. We make our bullar the night before, leaving them in the refrigerator for the second rising. Then, we take them out of the fridge for half an hour upon waking and pop them in the oven for 15 minutes.

Younger siblings (because who wants to be left out of the holiday fun) can serve as handmaids and star boys to the Lucia. Dressed in white gowns (but without the red sash), they follow the Lucia from room to room (or just the parents' bedroom if all children want to participate), helping the Lucia to serve the other family members from her tray of goodies. The girls carry lit candles in their hands, while the boys carry sticks with stars on the end and wear cone-shaped hats on their heads; often these hats are also decorated with stars. For boys who feel too "masculine" to be star boys, they may play the role of tomtar (brownies or elves, tomten is the singular), bringing up the rear of the procession, wearing red nightcaps and carrying small lanterns.

If you would like to share your Swedish heritage with others, it might be fun for children to bring buns to their teacher and classmates, as children in Sweden do. Coordinate with your child's teacher and see if a Lucia celebration might fit into the December 13th schedule. Or, like us, you can make extra buns and share them with neighbors and friends you get together with throughout the day.

In addition to the private celebration, St. Lucia's Day is also a day for charity--that greatly touted virtue of the Christmas season. Your family can find creative ways to be charitable in honor of Lucia's charity to the hungry peasants in Syracuse.

St. Lucia's Day is a wonderful celebration to brighten your Advent season. As it falls right in the center of Advent, it can be a wonderful way to break up the anticipation of Christmas, helping your children to focus in again on family and on giving, rather than the seemingly endless anticipation of Christmas morning. It is also a beautiful way to honor Scandinvian heritage for those who share it.

* Note: You can find many recipes for St. Lucia Buns online or in Scandinavian cookbooks or holiday baking books. If you'd like my family's recipe, feel free to email me at bethanyhudson(at)gmail(dot)com, and I'd be happy to pass it along.


  1. Thanks for the explanation! Growing up, my sister and I had American Girl dolls. She had Kirsten, and Kirsten had a special St. Lucia outfit.

  2. Allison - I loved my Kirsten doll when I was a little girl! And, it was fun that all my schoolmates knew about the holiday through the American Girl books, so I wasn't embarassed to share my *different* traditions with them all.

  3. This is a wonderful post -- I didn't know anything about St. Lucia's Day before.

    Do you suppose being Norwegian is close enough to being Swedish? :)

  4. Adrienne- In many way, yes! The Norwegian and Swedish languages, baking, and so many other cultural elements are very, very similar. And, though St. Lucia's Day is in celebrated quite so enthusiastically in Norway as it is in Sweden, the holiday is celebrated there, as well.


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