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Sankta Lucia and Fire Hazards Posted by on Dec 10, 2009 in Culture

On December 13th, Swedes will celebrate Saint Lucia, an Italian saint and martyr from the fourth century. Santa Lucia, as both the Saint and the day are known here in Sweden, will be venerated by a stereotypically blonde Swedish girl walking around with live candles on her head. She will be followed by girls in white (tärnor or attendants), boys (stjärngossar or star boys) dressed in white robes with conical hats on decorated with golden stars. To top it all off, this motley crew of innocence will form a parade, known as a Luciatåg (Lucia train) and walk around with baked goods, such as Lussekatter (Lucia buns).

And you thought the Swedes were completely normal…

The Swedish Lucia walks around in a white gown with a wreath of candles on her head. Usually, a wet or damp towel is placed under the wreath to minimize the fire risk if live candles are used. She is sometimes followed by other girls carrying a candle in one hand. The prominence of candles in the procession ties back to Santa Lucia herself and her eventual feast day.

Saint Lucia is said to have had her eyes gouged out because she was a Christian, but miraculously (hence her eventual canonization) she could still see. After her canonization, her feast day was set as December 13th, which, because of the calendar used during the middle ages, was right around the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. The symbolism of blindness and darkness lent themselves well to the use of candles. Of bringing light to the winter. Of warding off any sort of evil the darkness might bring. That tradition of lighting candles carries on today.

In many towns throughout Sweden, a Lucia is chosen. Historically, this has been a young girl, often times blonde, who acts as Lucia and leads the Luciatåg. Recently though, the choice of who will wear the crown of candles has become a more political topic with gender issues coming into play as some young men have been nominated as Lucia. Despite this, the male role in the Luciatåg continues to be predominantly as a stjärngosse.

The Luciatåg often makes an appearance at office buildings and schools throughout Sweden, and every year at Skansen, the large outdoor living museum in Stockholm, Stockholm’s Lucia is crowned. But it isn’t just about Lucia. It’s also about delicious baked goods.

The traditional Luciatåg brings Lussekatter, pepparkakor (gingersnaps), hot chocolate, and coffee to as they parade those very offices and school. Lussekatter are made with saffron and are in the shape of a figure eight with a raisin dotting each side. They are delicious and start popping up in stores and bakeries (and even 7-Eleven) a couple of weeks before December.

So despite what might at first seem like madness, what with girls walking around with candles on their head, there does exist some method (and history, and symbolism, and did I mention the delicious baked goods?) to the Swedish celebration of Santa Lucia.

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About the Author: Marcus Cederström

Marcus Cederström has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2009. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Oregon, a Master's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has taught Swedish for several years and still spells things wrong. So, if you see something, say something.


Comments:

  1. Carla:

    Bra! I love that the Swedes go all out for Christmas. Would it be ok for the modern Lucia to give out julmust? I’m going to bake Lussekatter this weekend!

  2. Marcus Cederström:

    They definitely find a lot of different ways to celebrate the holidays. Quite the cultural experience!

  3. Stan Edin:

    I am delighted to see the Swedish Blog back and stronger than ever. I so appreciate the contributions of all five of the bloggers! Keep it up!

  4. Marcus Cederström:

    So glad to hear it! If you have any suggestions, please let us know.

  5. Linn Olsson:

    A few years late here, but I wanted to comment anyway. I was a bit disappointed about you hardly mentioning the ‘tärnor’, who are, actually, more important than the ‘stjärngossar’. Traditionally there are 12 tärnor who walk in pairs behind Lucia in the Luciatåg, but in schools (and yes, almost every school has a Luciatåg every year) there are often more tärnor, since a lot of girls want to participate, and there can be only one Lucia.
    After the tärnor come the stjärngossar, as you mentioned, and there can also be tomtar, pepparkaksgubbar/ -gummor and sometimes even a Staffan Stalledräng, with or without his ‘fålar’.
    Anywho, I love Lucia, and anyone who gets the chance should definitely experience one (or more!) 🙂