The festival of Saint Lucia begins before dawn, on the thirteenth of December, which under the old Julian calendar was Christmas Day and the longest night of the year. Throughout Sweden, the eldest daughter in each household, the Lucia Bride, comes to her sleeping parents, dressed in a long white gown tied with a red sash. She wears a crown of lingonberry leaves in which are set seven lighted candles. In her hands she carries a tray of steaming hot coffee and Lucia Buns. The procession includes her sisters and brothers also dressed in white, holding lighted candles, and singing of the light and joy of Christmas. Awakened by the lights and the singing, the parents arise and eat the breakfast served, thus ushering in the Christmas season.
Scandinavian tradition holds that in Värmland, Sweden, a white-clad maiden, wearing a crown of burning candles, brought food to the starving villagers on the shores of Lake Vänern. No one knows how long ago the tradition began, but it was so far back that the festival of Saint Lucia was marked by a notch on the primitive calendar stick. 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.
However, the origins of this tradition are not from Scandinavia, but rather from Syracuse, on the island of Sicily around 304 A.D. According to 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.
Unfortunately, this was during the last great persecution of Christians in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. The pagan young man to whom Lucia was engaged took a dim view of this distributing of her dowry, and denounced her to the prefect, Pascasius, who ordered that she be seized and tortured. Miraculously, when neither boiling oil nor burning pitch had the power to hurt her, she was blinded and slain with a sword. Her martyrdom is recorded in ancient sources and in an inscription found in Syracuse.
How or when this legend and tradition came to Värmland, Sweden, no one knows. With the coming of Christianity to Sweden shortly after 1000 A.D., missionaries and priests may have told the story to inspire new converts. Or, possibly, sailors from Sweden, having been captivated by the popular candlelight festival of Saint Lucia in Italy, may have brought the tradition back with them.
However it made its way to Värmland, the customs in honor of Saint 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. Saint Lucia Day is also an international holiday, celebrated not only in Scandinavia, but also in Italy and France in the rites of the church.
Don’t forget to check out our own St. Lucia during the Junction City Light Parade on Friday December 13th in Downtown Junction City!