What is Lucia in Sweden? The Swedish Church explains the cultural Tradition

Dense snow crunches under my boots as I grind to a halt, gazing at the church enveloped by the dark Nordic morning. The biting cold makes me hustle towards the entrance.

I’m inside Storkyrkan, Stockholm’s 700-year-old grand cathedral. Situated in the Old Town, next to the Royal Palace, it’s a major tourist draw, attracting around 2 000 visitors each day during the summer months. But, now winter is upon us, the 13th of December to be exact, and the place of worship is heaving with people. The enormous nave is a sea of darkness, whispers mixing with palpable anticipation.

Then, the murmurs die down, replaced by angelic and youthful voices filling the air with heavenly songs as they stride between the aisles. At the rear of the procession, a young woman adorned in a white gown and a crown of flickering candles moves towards the sanctuary, each graceful step illuminating the path before her. Maidens in similar attire, each holding a candle, help create a visually striking and serene display as Lucia in Sweden is a celebration of light.

It’s a captivating and enchanting affair, marked by a blend of tradition, and a much needed sense of communal togetherness at the onset of the long Swedish winter. It involves the whole of society, with processions of Lucia present at schools, churches, workplaces, hospitals, and elderly homes. Part of “Brand Sweden,” it attracts cultural tourists from far and wide, travelling to the Stockholm to experience this exotic and seemingly ancient ritual. But, what is the actual background? Turns out there are more theories and supposed truths floating around than there are Abba hit songs.

Therefore, I decided to get to the bottom of the myths and legends by going to the highest authority I could think of, an institution now at the centre of the massive celebration of light; the Swedish Church. I spoke to Ulf Lindgren, Reverend Canon Precentor in the Lutheran Cathedral of Stockholm, who turned everything I thought I knew about Lucia upside down. Prepare for some shocking revelations.

A mashup of traditions, legends, and myths

“Actually, it’s a commercial and ethnological construction, circa 100 years old.” – Ulf Lindgren

I listen, incredulous and speechless, having expected Ulf to give me a historical narrative with a start in early Christianity during Roman times (yes, I’m one of those who think about the Roman Empire often). Instead, he assigns credit to Skansen, Sweden’s oldest open-air museum, which showcases how Swedes lived in different parts of the country before the industrial age.

Skansen created the concept out of separate traditions and myths. It took off in the 1920s, when they borrowed outfits and accessories from the NK department store, and arranged radio journalists to cover a procession from downtown to Skansen. It became a hit, the phenomenon spreading throughout Sweden. “For all intents and purposes, this is the Lucia we know today,” Ulf says.

A feeling of déjà vu washes over me, taking me back to the day I figured out the whole Santa Claus thing. Not ready to give up, I ask Ulf to unpack the story. Did Skansen invent it out of thin air?

“No, there are several backstories. One has to do with Lucifer,” Ulf answers.

Right. Perhaps not the character I thought we’d discuss, but why not?

Darkness in the streets of winter Stockholm

Extended darkness during Stockholm winter

Lucifer

In 18th century Sweden, a long-running superstition occurred on the 13th of December, the darkest day of the year according to the then-in-use Julian calendar. Folks believed Lusse, or Lucifer, the fallen angel, came out with his disciples to wreak havoc, specifically looking for people who didn’t keep a tidy and clean house. Teenage boys roamed around, throwing logs at people’s doors, trying to scare them and get a drink before leaving. They wore crowns with lights attached, which is where the crown of candles tradition originates from.

Girls and buns

In late 18th century Västergötland (western part of Sweden), the prevailing culture dictated that girls bake and walk around offering a special bun on the 13th of December.

Lucia the Saint

These two separate traditions move closer to each other during the late 1800, Ulf explains. It’s then Skansen decides they want to create a sort of Christmas party event and pick strands from each tradition. They remove the reference to Lucifer, instead making a connection to the Saint Lucia, and turning the day into a manifestation of light (derived from the Latin word lux).

Lucia, born in the 280’s in Syracuse, Sicily, became a martyr and later saint for her Christian beliefs during Roman times (at last, a link). The legend of her death comes in many forms, either by a sword to the throat, or her eyes gouged out as torture. Some say she took them out herself and handed them to an unwanted suitor. At burial a miracle restored them.

A crown of candles worn by Lucia bride

Crown of Candles

Ulf makes it clear that there is no genuine connection between her and the modern Lucia celebration. We use her name, but the story of her singing with other women does not fit with her known profile.

In essence, our festivity is not a revival of something old, it’s a new package inspired by disparate traditions, legends and myths.

Lucia in Sweden today – what to expect from a traditional celebration

In the contemporary Lucia procession you have the bride of light and the maidens, but also “stjärngossar,” (literal translation star boys), central figures in the show. The stjärngosse is a young boy who wears a white robe with a tall, pointed hat adorned with stars. In addition, he carries a lit candle. The boys sing a song about the first Christian martyr, Stefan (Staffan in Swedish), stoned for his beliefs. This is actually one of the oldest parts of the tradition, stemming from the late 18th century.

With Lucia celebrated across schools (since the 1960s), even pre-schools, peripheral characters contribute to the festive atmosphere. There is the “tomtenisse”, a mythical creature similar to a gnome or elf, often associated with Christmas and good fortune in Scandinavian folklore. To add a culinary aspect, you have the “Pepparkaksgubbar”, children dressed as the famous gingerbread cookie, adding a sweet and playful touch.

Speaking about food, Lucia has also become synonymous with the scrumptious “Lussekatt” or “Lussebulle”, harking back to the old tradition of girls baking and handing out buns on the 13th of December. Today we infuse them with saffron, and sometimes include almond paste. Together with the ginger cookies, and glasses of “glögg”, a spiced, sometimes alcoholic, mulled wine, they are an essential part of Christmas fika (the famous Swedish coffee and cake break). Enjoy them at home, in the office, or in public spaces, where they encapsulate the spirit of the season.

Saffron buns in different shapes

Saffron buns

What about the church? How did it enter the equation? Ulf explains it started in the 1970s, Lucia a wholly secular proceeding before this. Until the 1960s, the Swedish Church viewed candle lights with suspicion, more associated with Catholicism. During the last 50 years, the church has done a good job of adding a bit of Christian theology and biblical flair to the affair. Songs, dedicated to Lucia, often express themes of light, warmth, and hope during dark winter days and times of despair.

The choir adds a magical serenity, best enjoyed in an enormous cathedral from both an aesthetic and acoustic point of view. When the Saint Lucia song commences, in tandem with the procession, it’s hard not to get caught up in the enchantment. Traditional Christmas Carols sometimes make an appearance, alongside seasonal folk tunes, and choral arrangements.

Going to church to take in a Lucia performance has become such a popular phenomenon that it has spread to both before and after the 13th of December.

“We do 10-12 concerts in the grand cathedral alone, but we could have done 25 if we had more 13th’s of December,” Ulf says, adding they fill the place to the rafters, with a capacity of 1000 people per concert. If you imagine most of the churches in Stockholm hosting their own, you understand the size of the festivities. Seen as a single day event, Lucia is the most popular activity the church does all year. Only Christmas and Easter, which both occur over longer periods, draw larger crowds in total.

Lucia choir singing in the church seen from above.

Lucia choir

Lucia in Sweden – another reason to visit

“No, it’s unique to Sweden.”

Ulf doesn’t need long to answer my question if you find similar Lucia celebrations in other countries. Maybe this is why the activity grows bigger each year, with more visitors from abroad, mainly from the US and Europe, booking trips to Stockholm to experience the exoticism for themselves. The Swedish Church notices an influx of queries a couple of weeks before the 13th of December, asking about the practical details. Cultural tourism is a priority for Sweden and Lucia fits the bill, with the bonus of attracting tourist arrivals during the off-season. With the Nobel prize banquet and related events taking place mere days apart from Lucia, this is a perfect time to visit a festive Stockholm.

Stockholm has made a concerted effort to bolster the profile of the Lucia event by raising the age of the participants in the choir, now more geared towards 14-17 years olds who can sing in a greater variety of ranges and with more advanced choreography. Leading music schools and their choirs go all in, for example, the Adolf Fredrik’s School of Music, which has lent a more professional air to the celebrations, thereby bringing larger numbers to the churches.

Outside Sweden, Lucia is a reason for Swedes to come together at Swedish schools and embassies, inviting locals to one of the biggest PR events for the country during the year. Lucia has become a powerful brand for Sweden, conveying an ancient feeling with huge dark halls turned into bastions of light, a sort of national-romantic image, which Skansen has done a great job in cultivating.

Candlelights lined up on the floor

Light to ease the darkness

Talking to Ulf, a master storyteller, has been a delight. During a frank, open discussion, he put Lucia into a wider context by pulling away the curtain, thus exposing the whole truth. Much of the information surprised me, in particular how our celebrations today draw on completely separate traditions, assembled into a haunting, yet cherished occasion, for spectators and participants alike.

It might not be as old as I had imagined it to be, but even new customs have value, especially when they bring communities together in a positive spirit across generations, as well as strengthening bonds between nations. Lucia evolves with changing trends in society, but a celebration of light and enduring hope will never go out of style.

As the soft glow of candles and the delicate melody of Lucia songs fill the cathedral, the darkness of the winter morning abates. Time for saffron buns and mulled wine for extra warmth.

Have you been to a Lucia celebration? What did you think? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable tourism and luxury travel.

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