One of the odd aspects of my childhood is that moving around so much means I’ve taken part in the cultural celebrations of many different nations that are not strictly my own. It is for this reason that the 13th of December puts my nostalgia squarely in the Land of Yule, the place that perfected Christmas, the Scandinavia of my childhood.
When I lived in the castle village we held the celebration for Saint Lucy on this date. My first year in town I was chosen to sing the solo for the holiday party. That meant that I got to wear a crown and lead the procession. In the most traditional processions the crown would have nine candles on it with live flame and the children carry lit candles.
[The two tall red-headed twins in the back of the procession were my “boyfriend.” Their mother and I were the only people who seemed able to tell them apart. Yes, I had two boyfriends. You’re surprised? They both liked me and I hate to break hearts.]
[Tiny Big Mouth Diva singing her wee heart out. Vallo, Denmark 1983]
It’s odd that the Scandinavians celebrate this saint because it is not a Catholic nation and they don’t get down for the saints like other countries might. In fact, Italy is the only place that makes a big deal out of this besides Scandinavia. But Santa Lucia is celebrated by these Lutheran nations as part of the Christmas season. Most likely, like the tree and the gift exchange, this is a pagan tradition that pre-dates the Christ in Christmas and they had to give it a “saint” facade to adapt it to modern times. That we’re all meant to be holding candles (represented by silver stars in these photos) shows that it is really a winter solstice celebration as the 13 December was considered the longest night of the year. Lucia is a named based on the Latin word for light, lux. I doubt that it is a mere coincidence.
As a side note, this is a tradition the Danes borrowed directly from the Swedes and they didn’t start doing this until the 1940s. Prior to Luciadag, in the Nordic tradition before the saint was adopted, Lussi was an evil spirit who might snatch naughty children during the longest night of the year. I say only jokingly that the Scandinavians (and Germans) have “perfected” Christmas because no where else in the world that I know of do they capture the sense of coziness with candles and fireplaces and warm feeling to counteract the cold of snow and endless night so perfectly.
[I wear a crown well.]
I still do candles with live flames on our tree and the advent calendar and other aspects of the holidays that I found so charming in Denmark. I also love having the nisse around the house, which are these trolls you use to decorate at Christmas. They’re all hat and beard and they’re meant to bring good luck.
I think of them like the susuwatari sprites you see in the classic Studio Ghibli anime from Japan.
[Danish nisse. Image from Hannah in the House.]
You know the Santa Lucia song. Here is Elvis singing it in Italian.
I love Christmas because it’s one of the few times that people will still do a group sing-along. My kid’s scout troop is going caroling on Wednesday night and I can’t wait!
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