Festival of Light
The coming of light is often cause for celebration …
In Sweden, that’s why there’s joy and frivolity every 13 December. It’s Luciafest — the Festival of Lights — that marks the unofficial beginning of their Christmas season.
Luciafest — also known as ‘St Lucia Day’ or, simply, ‘Lucia’ — didn’t have its origins in the Christian tradition, but like a number of unique Christian festivals in Europe, it was used to ‘meld’ their religious message into the lore of a revered pagan legend for the purpose of increasing its own popularity. Easter, for example, arose from the Germanic fertility rituals of each year’s new Spring season — ergo, the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs — and their calendaric proximity to the Resurrection. Christian missionaries were very clever at utilizing this tactic for the purpose of assimilating their faith into regional cultures and, as we see today, the results were most effective. In this instance, nobody remembers pagan rights of Spring anymore; Easter has totally overtaken the occasion.
Meanwhile, back in the north, long arctic nights in pre-Viking times coaxed fireside tales from elders of even harsher times before, when famine spread throughout south central Sweden. It is said that, as the darkest day of the year personnified the foreboding fate of mass starvation, a glow grew on the horizon of the great Lake Vaettern. Rays of light pierced the darkness as precursors of hope, eventually revealing a longship, laden with foodstuffs and guided by a blonde maiden in a flowing white gown. This spirit of mercy arrived not a moment too soon, and frigid devastation gave way to enlightened renewal.
Before the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in the 1300s, the longest night/shortest day of the year was 13 December. Thus, this Maiden of Mercy became symbolic for the gradual lengthening of daylight that followed each successive new dawn.
Coincidentally, a similar legend was told in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. There, during the sixth century, forlorn locals gathered in their cathedral for prayers to St Lucia — a nun who was martyred in 304 AD and whose very name meant ‘light’ — when a miracle occurred in the form of a ship entering their harbor, carrying a cargo of food. Some scholars believe that the Goths — forerunners to the Vikings who originated in western Sweden — imparted that tale to southern Europe, where the local folk put a ‘Christian’ spin on it to accommodate their beliefs. However it happened, another melding of pagan lore and Christian ritual had begun its germination.
Meanwhile, back in Sweden, the western province of Halland saw this fable take iconic life in a tradition of young girls in white robes who traversed the snow and ice, torches in hand, carrying baked goods and warm greetings to homesteads throughout the countryside during the darkness of each 13 December. Other provinces took note and adopted the practice. Ultimately, these girls became festooned with crowns of lingonberry leaves and candles to further symbolize the coming of light. Somewhere else along the way, a red sash was added as an adornment, and the full costume of the ‘Lucia bride’ was complete.
Christianity first came to Sweden during the final throes of the Viking era in the eleventh century. As generations passed, the saintly image of Lucia became intertwined into the Swedish fable and further ebbed into their wintry custom. The local churches had noted the legend’s popularity and welcomed its theme of giving which underscored the Lucia celebration. They ultimately incorporated it into their annual rota, which in turn increased their recognition and acceptance by more and more local souls. Finally, in 1927, Luciafest was acknowledged in the royal halls of Stockholm and a national tradition was cemented.
Today, electric lights have replaced candles in the maiden’s crown and entourages of younger handmaidens (taernor) and starboys (stjaerngossar) now assist her. Each home may have its own Lucia celebration, but the event’s highlight is when each village and city neighborhood ‘elects’ a Lucia, who then leads her procession to a common service, accompanied by song and a buffet of pastries. These include the traditional ‘lussekatter’ — saffron-flavored buns shaped like curled-up cats, with raisins for eyes — and pepparkakor (ginger snaps) which are accompanied by refreshments such as ‘gloegg’ — a hot spiced wine — or coffee.
Needless to say, Luciafest remains as a uniquely Swedish national holiday. The household celebration takes place before dawn, the civic galas and church services occupy the abbreviated daylight hours, and for those who want to make the most of the occasion, the ‘Lucia wake’ takes the most party-hardy of souls well into the long Swedish night.
It’s quite possible that, during the latter part of that program, another Swedish spirit may appear. This is a high-octane grain- or potato-based libation that can well and truly addle a mind, even to the point where vestiges of other pagan-era Lucia apparitions may be conjured. As late as the Middle Ages, a prevalent belief was that Lucia Night hosted the ravages of ghosts and goblins, with animals becoming enchanted so as to speak to them.
In those instances, given enough aquavit, what the church tooketh away, the spirit broughteth back.