A Saint That Isn’t One

Today, Sweden celebrates one of its most peculiar traditions, which we of course will highlight here in Brussels as well: Sankta Lucia.

On this morning, young people in Protestant – and secular – Sweden dress up to stage the arrival of the Catholic saint, in a depiction that has nothing to do at all with the saint in question and has other roots and meanings as well. Of which most peole have little idea.

Heading a candlelit procession is a girl in a white robe with candles in her hair, symbolising (but not symbolising) St. Lucia of Syracuse, Italy, which is certainly not the reason why she is usually portrayed by a girl with long blond hair and other Scandinavian (but definitely not Italian) features. However, she historically doesn’t portray the saint, but an angel, of which there is no more mention and people usually haven’t heard of these days at all, but whch is from where she gets the candles, because while they are said to remind the secular Swedes of how St. Lucia lit up the catacombs to raise the spirits of the Christians hiding there in pre-Christian Europe days, they are actually intended to depict a halo as there is no record that St. Lucia ever illuminated the hideaway Christians’ lives in such a manner.

Along in the procession comes a group of similarly white-robed girls, with candles in their hands (but not in their hair, which is important), and boys without candles but wearing Merlin-the-wizard-style paper cones on their heads depicting them as “starboys”, the symbolism of which is unclear except that they are not wizards, and sometimes boys dressed as Santa Clauses, although they are less Santa Clauses and more of the red-dressed gnomes that are the origins of the Swedish Santa variant Jultomten, who by the way lives in Finland or at the North Pole but not in Sweden. And then of course the Gingerbread Man.

The procession sings a Swedish translation – with words that were actually incomprehensible to the standard use of Swedish already when they were written – which is a translation of the Italian folk song “Santa Lucia”, a widespread standard tune in Italy which is not about the St. Lucia at all, but about the quarters in Naples called Santa Lucia, in the original language sung by a fisherman who longs for his home there after a long hard day out on the Mediterranian Sea. Other songs are sung, too, all with the general message that Christmas is eleven days away, for those who are unable to work that out from their calendars, although Christmas itself is actually twelve days away by the Lucia day, but Christmas starts in Christmas Eve in Sweden –  which is not officially a holiday in the country, in spite of it being more observed than most holidays which are official.

Oh, yes, and sometimes they sing about St. Stephen, who in Sweden is percieved to be a stable hand who was stoned for alerting king Herod – whose horses he was tending – that the Star of Bethlehem had risen and Christ had been born, in spite of the fact that the Bible mentkons him as being stoned by a mob some time after Christ’s crucifiction, that is, three decades later (with no mention of horses); consequently, the song is exclusively about Stephen giving the horses water and riding one of them himself, and of stars twinkling in the sky, with no apparent internal connection at all.

The Lucia procession also serves coffee and saffron-filled buns with raisins, lussekatter, all of which is considered essentially Swedish even though neither coffee, saffron nor raisins are possible to produce in the country.

All of this is enough to make any Swede teary-eyed and sentimental, and considered a funamental element of the Christmas season. We shall take our kids to one evening version of the event arranged by the Swedish Lutheran church, but not by any of the Catholich churches in this officially Church of Rome country, later this evening – the ‘evening’ part being essential as the processional requires an outside darkness of the kind prevalent in Sweden this time of the year – which is held this year in the Dominican church, even though we usually attend an evangelical church in another part of town.

Did you get all that?

No? Well, while you try to work out all of the above, I think I’ll go and have another lussekatt. I baked my own last night. They turned out delicious. Especially when dunked in hot cocoa, which is not in the Lucia tradition at all but a tradition in my family.

Just to complicate things a little, that is.

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One Response to “A Saint That Isn’t One”

  1. Kristín Says:

    lovely account of the Lucia tradition – beautiful really.. 😉

    we always knew that there was something not quite right about the Lucia thing – messed up Swedes..


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