Lucia, Lucia Procession, Christmas

The arrival of light is often cause for celebration…

In Sweden, that is why there’s joy and frivolity each 13 December. It’s Luciafest — the Festival of Lights — that marks the unofficial beginning of their Christmas season.

Luciafest — also called’St Lucia Day’ or, simply,’Lucia’ — didn’t have its roots in the Christian tradition, but like a number of unique Christian festivals in Europe, it had been used to’meld’ their religious message into the lore of a revered pagan legend for the purpose of increasing its own recognition. Easter, for instance, arose from the Germanic fertility rituals of each year’s new Spring season — ergo, the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs — and their calendaric proximity to the Resurrection. Christian missionaries were very clever at utilizing this tactic for the purpose of assimilating their religion into regional cultures and, as we see now, the results were most effective. In this example, nobody remembers pagan rights of Spring anymore; Easter has totally overtaken the occasion. Skunk Poop

It is said that, as the darkest day of the year personnified the foreboding fate of mass starvation, a glow grew on the horizon of the great Lake Vaettern. Rays of light pierced the darkness as precursors of hope, finally revealing a longship, laden with foodstuffs and guided by a blond maiden in a flowing white dress.

Before the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in the 1300s, the longest night/shortest day of the year was 13 December. Thus, this Maiden of Mercy became symbolic for the gradual lengthening of daylight that followed each successive new dawn.

Coincidentally, a similar legend has been told in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. There, during the sixth century, forlorn locals gathered in their cathedral for prayers to St Lucia — a nun who had been martyred in 304 AD and whose very name meant’light’ — when a miracle happened in the form of a boat entering their harbor, carrying a cargo of food. Some scholars believe that the Goths — forerunners to the Vikings who originated in western Sweden — imparted that tale to southern Europe, where the local folk put a’Christian’ spin on it to adapt their faith.

Meanwhile, back in Sweden, the western province of Halland saw this fable take iconic life in a tradition of young girls in white robes who traversed the snow and ice, torches in hand, carrying baked goods and warm greetings to homesteads through the countryside during the darkness of each 13 December. Other states took note and adopted the practice. Finally, these women became habituated with crowns of lingonberry candles and leaves to further symbolize the coming of light.

Christianity first came to Sweden during the final throes of the Viking era in the eleventh century. As generations passed, the saintly image of Lucia became intertwined to the Swedish fable and further ebbed into their wintry custom. The regional churches had noted the legend’s fame and welcomed its theme of giving which underscored the Lucia celebration. They ultimately incorporated it into their yearly rota, which in turn increased their recognition and acceptance by more and more local souls. Finally, in 1927, Luciafest was acknowledged in the royal halls of Stockholm and a national tradition was cemented.

Each home may have its own Lucia party, but the event’s highlight is when each village and town neighborhood’elects’ a Lucia, who then leads her procession to a common company, accompanied by song and a buffet of pastries. These include the traditional’lussekatter’ — saffron-flavored buns shaped like curled-up cats, with raisins for eyes — and pepparkakor (ginger snaps) which are accompanied by refreshments like’gloegg’ — a hot spiced wine — or java.

Obviously, Luciafest stays as a uniquely Swedish national holiday. The household celebration takes place before dawn, the civic galas and church agencies occupy the abbreviated daylight hours, and for those who wish to make the most of the event, the’Lucia wake’ takes the most party-hardy of spirits well to the long Swedish night.

It is quite possible that, during the latter part of that program, another Swedish spirit may appear. This is a high-octane grain- or potato-based libation that can well and truly addle a brain, even to the point where vestiges of other pagan-era Lucia apparitions might be conjured. As late as the Middle Ages, a widespread belief was that Lucia Night hosted the ravages of ghosts and goblins, with animals becoming enchanted so as to speak to them.

In those instances, given enough aquavit, what the church tooketh away, the spirit broughteth back.

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