December 13th, the dead of Winter, traditionally Winter solstice when day is at its shortest and night at its longest. Norse tradition tells of demons and ghosts that reign on this day, spirits that possess animals and make them speak.
This is a dark time. A time of dread.
In the darkness comes the light of St Lucia.
St Lucia is a third century girl from Syracuse in present day Sicily, a Christian martyr of the Diocletianic Persecution. Lucia was a consecrated virgin who dedicated her life to the Christian god. The lack of men in her life led her worried guardian to betroth her to a young man from a wealthy pagan family. The passionate Christian Lucia, convinced her guardian to have faith in God and to share her wealth with the poor and persecuted. She would walk in the catacombs and bring food and aid to Christians hiding from persecution. Dressed in white and with a wreath of candles to light the way and leave her hands free to carry more food.
She was to many of these hunted people, an angel in white.
News of Lucia selling her wealth to help the cultish Christians reached her betrothed. In anger, he denounced her Christian religion to Paschasius. Paschasius ordered her to offer sacrifice to the emperor, but she refused and he later sentenced her to the brothel to be defiled. “The Christian tradition states that when the guards came to take her away, they could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, but would not burn. Finally, she met her death by the sword.”
When Christian missionaries arrived in Scandanavia, the story of a young girl bringing light and goodness in the heart of darkness resonated and the feast became widely celebrated in the region. She became the saint and the feast day that symbolised Advent, the coming of Christ on Christmas Day.
She was a herald as was the Winter solstice. Once this night had passed light would begin to return and the days would start to get longer.
Despite being the most secular region in the world, the formerly religious event has come to take on a social and cultural importance.
Young girls would take part in pageants to be Lucia, while others would join in the procession in different roles. Luciakatter or Saffron Buns would be made, peppakrakor or gingerbread cookies would be eaten and warm glogg would be drunk.
The main activities of Lucia Day in Stockholm are held in Skansen, where the practice was revived just over a century ago.
But how did an Olive-skinned, black haired Sicilian girl from almost 2000 years ago become a blonde and blue eyed saint in Sweden? Prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries, the norse people had already marked the day by celebrating the Norse goddess Freyja. Freyja was the norse goddess of love, sex, fertility, beauty, gold, norse sorcery, war and death. In an effort to make the new Christian religion more palatable to the natives, missionaries adapted the celebration to a feast day and keep the broad dressing if Freyja/Lucia similar. Such inculturation techniques are not new, the same happened for Christmas, and also when the religion was brought to other cultures around the world (think of the Chinese buddhaistava Guan Yin and Mary).
In this dark global political, economic and social times, this festival could serve as more than a cultural event but also as a reminder, that it is always darkest before dawn, we cannot lose hope in building a better tomorrow. Things must and will get better.
Happy Lucia everyone!