No one knows how long ago the tradition began, but it was so far back that the festival of Santa Lucia was marked by a notch on the primitive “primstav” (calendar stick), the precursor of the calendar. It later became customary in western Sweden to finish the threshing by Lucia Day so as to begin the cooking and baking for the long Christmas festivities. From its beginnings in Värmland, the customs in honor of Santa Lucia have spread throughout Sweden, and more recently to the rest of Scandinavia. Today, the festival is celebrated in schools, hospitals, businesses, and towns; each of which has its own Lucia Bride and festivities to mark the beginning of Christmas. Santa Lucia Day is also an international holiday, celebrated not only in Scandinavia, but also in Italy and France in the rites of the church.
The origins of this tradition are not in Scandinavia, but in Syracuse on the island of Sicily around A.D. 304. According to the Sicilian legend, Lucia’s mother, a wealthy lady, had been miraculously cured of an illness at the sepulcher of Saint Agatha in Catania. Lucia, a Christian, persuaded her mother in thankfulness to distribute her wealth to the poor. So, by candlelight, the mother and daughter went about the city secretly ministering to the poor of Syracuse.
As Lucia Day comes at the darkest time of year, the candies of the ministering Santa Lucia portend and witness to the True Light – the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. On the morning of the thirteenth of December, the strains of “Santa Lucia” are heard everywhere in Sweden as the white-robed maiden comes out of the night with her burning crown of candies dispelling the darkness. In honour of her martyrdom, it has long been the custom to donate money on Lucia Day to institutions working for the blind.
In traditional celebrations, Saint Lucy comes as a young woman with lights and sweets. It is one of the few saints’ days still observed in Scandinavia. In some forms, a procession is headed by one girl wearing a crown of candles (or lights), while others in the procession hold only a single candle each.
A traditional kind of bun, Lussekatt (“St Lucia Bun”), made with saffron, is normally eaten on this day.
—Touch of Europe: St Lucia Holiday Celebrations in Scandinavia
Patroness of the blind, her name derives from the Latin lux, which means light.
Santa Lucia is also associated with the harvest and Sicilians customarily celebrate her feast day with cuccia, a hearty porridge made with wheat berries.
In Sweden her veneration is a delightful celebration where children dress in white, bear candles and sing songs in her honour. Sweetbreads are served in remembrance of a terrible famine in which she appeared in the harbour with boatloads of food to save the starving. A near identical legend takes place in Siracusa, hinting that Norse pilgrims may have brought this legend home with them from Sicily.
—Santa Lucia of Siracusa
Swedish Christmas Smorgasbord
People have bought their presents and their Christmas food in crowded shops and department stores, and the home has been cleaned and decorated according to each family’s traditional habits.
Christmas is the main family event of the year, and there is always a certain amount of discussion about where to celebrate it this time round. Sweden, as we have mentioned, is a large country, and those wishing to be reunited with their families often have to travel far. Train and air tickets need be booked at least two months in advance, and motorists are advised to start their journeys in good time.
Waiting for Santa Claus can take all day — or so the children feel.
Photo: Heléne Grynfarb/Bildarkivet.se
Modernisation of Christmas
Christmas in Sweden is a blend of domestic and foreign customs that have been re-interpreted, refined and commercialised on their way from agrarian society to the modern age.
Today, most Swedes celebrate Christmas in roughly the same way, and many of the local customs and specialities have disappeared, although each family claims to celebrate it in true fashion in their own particular way.
The food you eat at Christmas may still depend on where you live in the country, or where you came from originally. But here, too, homogenisation has set in, due in no small part to the uniform offerings of the department stores and the ready availability of convenience foods. Few have time to salt their own hams or stuff their own pork sausages nowadays.
Ingmar Bergman‘s Oscar-winning film Fanny and Alexander, although set in the late 19th century, nevertheless reflects Swedish Christmas celebrations today: a bright and lively occasion, full of excess, good food and happiness, but also a time during which family secrets tend to surface.
Holiday leave over Christmas and the New Year is fairly long, usually extending a week into January. Once Christmas Eve is over, a series of enjoyable — or, in some cases, dutiful — visits to friends and relatives ensues.
In the north of Sweden, a white Christmas is sure to be enjoyed. Photo: Henrik Trygg/Imagebank.sweden.se
Perhaps celebrating Christmas is more complicated than ever nowadays. Present-day family constellations, comprising ex-wives and ex-husbands, children from marriages old and new, newly-acquired relatives and mothers-in-law, are all hard to fit into the nuclear family celebration that, deep down, all Swedes prefer. As though they weren’t already under enough pressure to celebrate a perfect Christmas.
As a rule, Swedes expect a great deal from their Christmases. There should be snow on the ground but blue skies and sunshine, everyone is expected to be in good health, the ham must be succulent and tasty, and presents must be numerous. Moreover, the children are expected to be happy and well-behaved and the home is expected to be warm and bright.
Everyone does their best, and the Swedes perhaps are better placed than most to celebrate Christmas. The ever-present candles and lights provide a nice contrast to the winter dark, the red wooden cottages are at their most attractive when embedded in snow, and the fir trees stand dark and sedate at the edge of the forest. Santa Claus moves about the land and the North Star pulsates up there in the night sky.
The typical Swedish red wooden cottages are at their best when embedded in snow. Photo: Thomas Adolfsén/Bildarkivet.se
The perfect Christmas tree?
On the day before Christmas Eve, Swedes venture forth to look for the perfect Christmas tree. This is a serious matter — the tree is the very symbol of Christmas, and it must be densely and evenly branched, and straight. If you live in a city or town, you buy the tree in the street or square.
Those who live in the country fell their Christmas trees themselves. Many Swedes believe — mistakenly — that their legal right of access to the countryside allows them to fetch a tree from the woods wherever they like, with an axe, a bucksaw or — as in western Värmland on the Norwegian border — with a shotgun. Not to be recommended.
Trees are decorated according to family tradition. Some are bedecked with flags, others with tinsel and many with coloured baubles. Electric lights are usually preferred to candles on the tree because of the risk of fire.
Homes are also decorated with wall hangings depicting brownies and winter scenes, with tablecloths in Christmas patterns, and with candlesticks, little Father Christmas figures and angels. The home is filled with the powerful scent of hyacinths.
At 3 p.m., the whole of Sweden turns on the tv to watch a cavalcade of Disney film scenes that have been shown ever since the 1960s without anyone tiring of them. Only then can the celebrations begin in earnest.
Abundance of food
Christmas presents are under the lighted tree, candles shine brightly and the smörgåsbord has been prepared with all the classic dishes: Christmas ham, pork sausage, an egg and anchovy mixture (gubbröra), herring salad, pickled herring, home-made liver patty, wort-flavoured rye bread(vörtbröd), potatoes and a special fish dish, lutfisk. The ham is first boiled, then painted and glazed with a mixture of egg, breadcrumbs and mustard. Lutfisk is dried ling or sathe soaked in water and lye to swell before it is cooked.
Once all have eaten their fill, Santa Claus himself arrives to wish the gathering a Merry Christmas and distribute the presents.
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Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic with the Stockholm daily, Dagens Nyheter. Po Tidholm wrote the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today.
by Agneta Lilja, Södertörn University College
Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Christ, has long been the most important festivity of the year. In the old days, it was a feast for the whole household as there was plenty of fresh food to be had. The Christmas table was laid with ham, pickled herring, jellied pig’s feet, sausage, rice porridge and lutfisk (ling). The food was to be left on the table overnight, as it was then that the dead came to feast.
Homes were cleaned and decorated with wall hangings, and fresh straw was laid on floors. The birds were given an oatsheaf and the mythical farmyard brownie a plate of porridge. The practice of bringing a Christmas tree into the house and decorating it was imported from Germany in the 1880s. Initially, Christmas presents were given anonymously, and playfully, often in the form of a log of wood or the like wrapped up and tossed through a front door. In the 20th century, people began giving one another real presents, handed out by Santa Claus, who was modelled on St. Nicholas, the patron saint of schoolchildren.
At the early-morning church service (julotta) on Christmas Day, traces of earth could be seen in the pews where the dead had held their own service overnight. After the service, people raced to get home first. The winner would harvest his crops before anyone else that year.
On Boxing Day, you got up early to water the horses in streams running north, as Saint Stephen, the patron saint of horses, was said to have done. Another practice, which breached the no-work rule,was to muck out other people’s barns.
Twelfth Night commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. The Swedish tradition of ‘star boys’ (stjärngossar) derives from this. In former times, boys often went round the farms carrying a paper star, singing songs in return for schnapps. Today, the star boys are a part of the Lucia celebration.
Hilarymas (Knutsdagen) on 13 January marked the end of the Christmas holiday in Sweden, and was celebrated with a final medieval-style feast. People scared one another with straw figures hung from trees. In bourgeois circles, the Christmas tree was plundered of its edible decorations. Tree-plundering is still practiced in Sweden today.