Kicking off the holiday seasonDecember 15, 2015
On December 13, Swedes around the world celebrate St. Lucia Day (St. Lucy’s Day) and honor the story of Sankta Lucia – a Christian maiden martyred for sharing her dowry with the poor.
Though there are many versions of the story that have been passed on since 300 A.D., the celebration of Lucia, meaning light, is the foremost cultural tradition for this holiday – she carried candles with her, bringing light during the cold and dark winter season.
The day begins with a strong tradition in each home. Like leaving cookies with milk for Santa on Christmas Eve, children surprise their parents with baked goods and coffee in the morning. Later in the day, families attend local performances and celebrations.
During the performance, a young girl playing the role of Lucia comes into the procession dressed in a white gown with a red sash around her waist and a crown made of evergreen, lingonberries and candles to bring in light. Following behind her are young Swedes dressed alike – Stjärngossars (translating to “star boys”) wear pointy hats and carry stars while the tärnors (the young girls resembling Lucia) carry candles – singing carols and harmonizing solos. There are more than 40 St. Lucia Day songs and vary for each function.
The process for selecting a Lucia depends on the customs of each annual procession. In Sweden, villages and towns often times will choose only one while more populated cities will choose one for each school or church performance. In the states, many Swedish organizations, clubs and groups select their own.
“Every girl wants to be the Lucia each year,” said Kerstin Hendrickson, coordinator of Washington D.C.’s Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA) Lucia event. “In Sweden, it is almost like a beauty pageant.”
This year, Hendrickson has coordinated eight St. Lucia Day performances that were held at the Swedish Embassy and Augustana Lutheran Church. Each year The Swedish American Cultural Union and Swedish Ambassador host parties around a performance (the celebration portion of St. Lucia Day).
The celebrations surrounding St. Lucia processions are made up of feasts, music, dancing and a time for communities to kick off the holiday season. A typical feast will include saffron buns, known as lussekatt, ginger snaps shaped like hearts, meatballs, a smorgasbord of pickled, chilled, smoked and cured fishes like herring and glögg – a hot, spiced wine.
Like D.C.’s chapter of SWEA, there are a number of Swedish organizations around the country that throw their own version of St. Lucia Day – keeping the Swedish traditions of their heritage alive and teaching it to others.
“Sharing Swedish traditions since moving here from Sweden has been very important to me,” Hendrickson said. “I have so much fun coordinating St. Lucia performances every year and teaching the kids about a holiday so important to our culture.”