Why Swedish girls wear candles in their hair.
Lucia is a festival of lights and marks the true start of the holiday season in my mind. The holiday is named after St. Lucia of Syracuse, an ancient mythical figure that died in 304. St. Lucia is the bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters.
During this holiday, young boys and girls dress in white gowns with red ribbons and sing songs to the listening crowd. One lucky girl is chosen to be St. Lucia, wearing a crown of candles in a wreath on her head. The candles can be real or electric. If the candles are real, you’ll see her walking slowly and combing wax out of her hair afterwards!
Following St. Lucia in the Luciatåg (the Lucia train) are St. Lucia’s handmaidens (tärnor) carrying candles and “star boys” (stjärngossar), who are also dressed in white gowns, carry stars on sticks, and have tall paper cones on their heads. The youngest processional members – the gingerbread men (pepparkaksgubbar), AKA the “brownies” – bring up the rear and carry small lanterns. Overall, it is a sweet and semi-quirky sight to behold.
Being chosen to be St. Lucia is quite an honor in Sweden. Each city, church, or school selects their St. Lucia from a selection of local children. In the past, however, there was a national competition for the role of Lucia! Local newspapers and the national TV invited subscribers to vote for their favorite candidate. This practice is now obsolete, as Sweden generally avoids ranking people (which is why beauty contests and ‘homecoming queen’ events are rare here).
Lucia is December 13th each year, so mark your calendars because it is coming up! And make sure you have this playlist on repeat to get you in the spirit.
I love Lucia because it is a tradition I never experienced before I moved to Sweden. And now I think of it as quintessentially Swedish, like Midsummer. Although, you can find Lucia celebrations outside of Sweden, such as in Germany, Latvia, Russia, Italy, and China. The choirs sing beautiful music in Swedish (and often some Christmas carols in English too!) and the entire atmosphere is enchanting and warm. So, if you looking for a cozy new holiday to celebrate, Sweden has you covered.
- The Lucia tradition can be traced back both to the martyr St. Lucia of Syracuse and to the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam’s first wife. According to Sweden.se, “It is said that she consorted with the Devil and that her children were invisible infernals.” Who knew such a cozy holiday had such sinister roots!
- The name Lucia may be associated with both lux (light) and Lucifer (Satan).
- The first recorded appearance of a white-clad St. Lucia in Sweden was in a country house in 1764. But the tradition took hold when Stockholm proclaimed its first St. Lucia in 1927.
- The custom where St. Lucia serves coffee and lussekatter (saffron buns) dates back to the 1880s.
- The red ribbons on the white gowns symbolize the death of St. Lucia. Cheery!
- Lucia is not complete without some lussekatter, or saffron buns that are shaped like a curled up cat with raisins for eyes (hence the katter in lussekatter). Find a recipe in English here.
- The Lucia celebrations can become quite crowded, especially if you opt to go to a church. Be sure to arrive early and be prepared to queue in line for over an hour in larger cities.
- If you decide to watch a Lucia celebration outside, I would recommend bringing along a warm drink (perhaps Swedish mulled wine glögg) and some lussekatter buns to enjoy. And be sure to bundle up – it is cold outside!
- Want to know more? Watch this cute video.
Hope you learned some new Swedishness today and I’ll see you in the next post!