BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)
On the 13th of December each year, communities all around Sweden celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day, also known as the Feast of St. Lucy. This Christian holiday celebrates Lucia of Syracuse. She was born in 283 AD to noble Roman parents. Lucy promised her chastity to God and wanted to distribute her dowry amongst the poor; however, her mother arranged a marriage between her and a wealthy pagan man.
Before her marriage, her mother fell ill and they travelled to the shrine of St. Agatha in Catalonia. While there, Lucy believed that St. Agatha came to her in a dream and told her that her mother would become cured and she would be the glory of Syracuse. Her mother became cured shortly after, and so Lucy was able to convince her mother to let her donate her dowry.
When her suitor learned of this, he reported her to the governor of Syracuse. She was told to burn an offering to the emperor, and when she refused, she was sentenced to work in a brothel. When they tried to take her away, she wouldn’t move, and they eventually set her aflame. She then died when a sword was taken to her throat. This took place during the Diocletianic Persecution, which was the worst Christian persecution by the Roman Empire.
By the Middle Ages, European nations started celebrating her as a martyr. A legend arose that during the persecution, she brought food to Christians hiding in Roman catacombs, and she wore a candle on her head to guide the way and make more room in her hands to carry food. In Sweden, they took on a new holiday due to this legend. Traditionally, Saint Lucia’s Day is on the longest night of the year during the Advent season. Therefore, Lucia rose as a symbol in peasant communities of light amongst the darkness and warmth in the cold winter.
On this night, agrarian women in Sweden started dressing as Lucia and wandering between houses singing songs during the night to scrounge for food and alcohol. By the 1700s, women started dressing in white, full-length baptismal gowns, usually with a red sash to symbolize Lucia’s virginity. Women would then wear a wreath of candles on their heads.
By the 1900s, wandering between houses grew to be unacceptable, and the celebration took on a more innocent approach. A formal procession was created. Now, in Scandinavian countries, a girl is elected to play the role of Lucia by either her community or school, and she wears the traditional garments and candles. The candles came to be a symbol of Christ’s light coming into the world at Christmas, and of the fire that wasn’t able to kill Lucia when she was tempted with death. Behind this young girl, other young women carry candles and sing the Neapolitan song “Sankta Lucia.” Sometimes, boys are also involved in the ceremony, where they represent St. Stephen. They will dress as elves, gingerbread men, or “star boys,” carrying lanterns with them. They might sing a few songs of their own about St. Stephen caring for his horses.
In 1927, a newspaper in Stockholm elected a girl to be the official Lucia for the city. This led to most cities following suit. Now, girls who are elected regionally to play the role will sing carols at shopping malls, nursing homes, and other public spaces while distributing gingernut cookies. Today, it is a holiday that is widespread through both Sweden and other European nations to celebrate light and the coming of Christ.