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Lucia

The annual candlelit Lucia procession on 13 December is perhaps one of the more exotic-looking Swedish customs, with girls and boys clad in white full-length gowns singing songs together. Among the youngest, anyone can be Lucia; as the children get older, the competition will harden.

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Photo: Lena Granefelt/imagebank.sweden.se

White gowns, stars and candles

The real candles once used are now often battery-powered, but there is still a special atmosphere when the lights are dimmed and the sound of the children singing grows as they enter from an adjacent room.

Tradition has it that Lucia is to wear ‘light in her hair’, which in practice means a crown of electric candles in a wreath on her head. Each of her handmaidens carries a candle, too. Parents gather in the dark with their mobile cameras at the ready.

The star boys, who like the handmaidens are dressed in white gowns, carry stars on sticks and have tall paper cones on their heads. The brownies bring up the rear, carrying small lanterns.

Competing to be Lucia

Competition for the role of Lucia can be tough. Each year, a national Lucia is proclaimed in one or other of the TV channels, while every town and village worth the name chooses its own Lucia. Candidates are presented in the local newspaper a couple of weeks in advance.

Staunchly opposed to privilege, Sweden has always sought to avoid ranking people, which is why beauty contests and ‘homecoming queen’ events are rare. The Lucia celebration, however, has been an exception. Every year, local newspaper subscribers are invited to vote for one or other of the candidates.

You can no longer count on the blonde winning, although many a Miss Sweden has started out as the local Lucia. On Lucia Day, the winner is announced and is then driven around town, preferably in a horse-drawn vehicle of some kind, to spread light and song in food stores, factories, old-age homes and medical centres.

Lucia − the bearer of light

Alongside Midsummer, the Lucia celebrations represent one of the foremost cultural traditions in Sweden, with their clear reference to life in the peasant communities of old: darkness and light, cold and warmth.

Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters.

The many Lucia songs all have the same theme:

The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

All Swedes know the standard Lucia song by heart, and everyone can sing it, in or out of tune. On the morning of Lucia Day, the radio plays some rather more expert renderings, by school choirs or the like.

The Lucia celebrations also include ginger snaps and sweet, saffron-flavoured buns (lussekatter) shaped like curled-up cats and with raisin eyes. You eat them with glögg or coffee.

Last updated: 25 March 2014

Po Tidholm & Agneta Lilja

Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic based in the province of Hälsingland. He regularly contributes to Swedish dailies Dagens Nyheter and Aftonbladet, the magazine Filter and Swedish Radio. His texts about society, culture and history often revolve around the Swedish countryside and the north of Sweden. Tidholm has written the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today. | Agneta Lilja is a lecturer in ethnology at Södertörn University College, Stockholm. Her doctoral thesis, The Notion of the Ideal Record, was a critical examination of collection strategies at an archive specialising in the documentation of customs and traditions. Her research has also included the study of songs and festive customs, and she has written a book about All Saints’ Day and Halloween. At present, she is engaged in gender research. She also writes reviews and appears on radio and tv. Agneta Lilja wrote the sections about the history of Swedish traditions and festivities.