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Festival of Lights
The arrival of light is often a cause for rejoicing…
In Sweden, that is why there is joy and frivolity every December 13th. It’s Luciafest—the Festival of Lights—that marks the unofficial start of their Christmas season.
Luciafest — also known as ‘St Lucia Day’ or, simply, ‘Lucia’ — did not have its origins in Christian tradition, but like a number of unique Christian festivals in Europe, it was used to ‘fuse’ their religious message into the tradition of a revered pagan legend in an effort to increase its own popularity. Easter, for example, grew out of the Germanic fertility rituals of each year’s new season of spring — ergo, the Easter bunny, and Easter eggs — and their calendar proximity to the Resurrection. Christian missionaries were very adept at using this tactic in an effort to assimilate their faith into regional cultures and, as we see today, the results were most effective. In this case, no one remembers the pagan rights of spring; Easter has totally overtaken the occasion.
Meanwhile, up north, long arctic nights in pre-Viking times sparked fireside tales from elders of even tougher times, when famine spread across the central south. from Sweden. It is said that as the darkest day of the year personified the ominous fate of mass starvation, a gleam rose on the horizon of the great Lake Vaettern. Rays of light pierced the darkness like harbingers of hope, finally revealing a longship, laden with food and guided by a young blonde girl in a flowing white dress. That spirit of mercy came not too soon, and the freezing devastation gave way to an enlightened renewal.
Before the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in the 1300s, the longest night/shortest day of the year was December 13. Thus, this Virgin of Mercy became the symbol of the progressive lengthening of the light of day which followed each successive new dawn.
Coincidentally, a similar legend was told in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. There, in the 6th century, desperate locals gathered in their cathedral to pray to Saint Lucia — a nun who was martyred in 304 AD and whose very name meant “light” — when a miracle s is produced in the form of a ship entering their port, carrying a cargo of food. Some scholars believe that the Goths—precursors to the Vikings who originated in western Sweden—carried this story to southern Europe, where locals gave it a “Christian” twist to suit their beliefs. Either way, another fusion of pagan tradition and Christian ritual had begun to germinate.
Meanwhile, back in Sweden, the western province of Halland saw this iconic fable come to life in a tradition of young girls in white dresses walking through snow and ice, torches in hand, carrying pastries and warm greetings. to the farms of the countryside during the darkness of each December 13th. Other provinces have taken notice and adopted the practice. In the end, these girls were decorated with lingonberry leaf wreaths and candles to further symbolize the coming of light. Elsewhere along the way, a red sash was added as an adornment, and the complete ‘Bride of Lucia’ costume was complete.
Christianity first came to Sweden during the final throes of the Viking Age in the 11th century. Over the generations, the holy image of Lucy has become enmeshed in Swedish fable and further diminished in their wintry custom. Local churches had noted the popularity of the legend and praised its theme of the gift which highlighted the celebration of Lucia. They eventually incorporated it into their annual program, which increased their recognition and acceptance by more and more local souls. Finally, in 1927, Luciafest was recognized in the royal halls of Stockholm and a national tradition was cemented.
Today, electric lights have replaced the candles in the maiden’s crown, and entourages of young servant girls (taernor) and starboys (stjaerngossar) now assist her. Each house may have its own Lucia celebration, but the climax of the event is when each village and city neighborhood “elects” a Lucia, who then leads her procession to a common service, accompanied by singing and a pastry buffet. These include the traditional “lussekatter” — saffron-flavored buns shaped like curled up cats, with raisins for eyes — and pepparkakor (ginger buns) which come with refreshments such as the “gloegg”—a spiced wine—or coffee dish.
Needless to say, Luciafest remains a uniquely Swedish national holiday. The house party takes place before dawn, civic galas and church services fill the abbreviated daylight hours, and for those who want to make the most of the occasion, the “Suile de Lucia” takes the most souls party girls well into the long Swedish Night.
It is quite possible that during the latter part of this program another Swedish spirit may appear. It is a high octane grain or potato based libation that can well and truly cloud a mind, even to the point where remnants of other Lucia apparitions from the pagan era can be mentioned. Until the Middle Ages, a widespread belief was that Lucia Night welcomed the ravages of ghosts and goblins, with the animals becoming enchanted to speak to them.
In these cases, given enough aquavit, what the church took away, the spirit brought back.
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