Friends in the US often ask me how one survives December and January living in Northern Sweden with an average daylight of 3-4 hours. While there are lots of ways to cope with the winter darkness, my best strategy is the one embraced by most Swedes (and fellow Scandinavians too for that matter): lighting candles. As we prepare for Christmas this strategy is naturally amplified.

My favorite pre-Christmas celebration occurs on December 13th, the day of Saint Lucia. A tradition celebrated throughout Scandinavia, but embraced with most affection in Sweden. How the Scandinavian countries came to celebrate a blind Sicilian Saint is somewhat debated.

As many of our most popular Christmas traditions, Lucia is made up by a combination of Christian and pre-Christian symbolisms. The Saint Lucia was a blind Roman-Catholic nun caring for the poor. Lux means light in Latin, and Saint Lucia used candles in her hair to light up her path in Sicily over a thousand years ago. In the old Swedish calendar, the longest night of the year fell on December 13th. Pre-Christian folk tales spoke of the need to light candles to scare away talking animals and other supernatural happenings that night. Naturally, when Christianity came to Sweden, the Saint Lucia celebration fit in perfectly on this day; and the rest of the Scandinavian countries followed suit and adopted December 13th as Santa Lucia Day.

The modern Lucia celebrations include processions of children or young adolescents, draped in white robes, with candles in their hair, singing traditional Christmas hymns. Almost every school, hospital, office, church, and town hall will have their own ‘Lucia tag’ (Lucia train) with girls and boys lighting up the darkness with beautiful songs and words of ‘Julefrid’ (Christmas peace), joy and solidarity. Here is a youtube clip that we hope will get you in the right mood.

The Sicilian saint is believed to have brought food to the poor and as a symbol of her work many processions bring ‘Pepparkakor’ (gingerbread cookies) and ‘Lussekatter’ (Lucia buns) to the audience.

How do you get your own Saint Lucia experience?

If you happen to be in Sweden on the day of Lucia, Skansen (open-air museum and zoo in Stockholm) hosts a very famous Lucia celebration in the traditional style. It dates back to 1893. Tickets are on sale through ticnet.se. Unfortunately, most of us are unable to attend this live event in Sweden, but the celebrations can also be seen online through the Swedish National Television channel SVTPlay.se.

In the US, you can catch the show in New York, where the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce hosts a Lucia celebration. Bemidji, MN, also invites everyone to attend their Lucia festival on the 13th, which includes the procession and a grand breakfast feast to kick off the Christmas celebrations. Finally, in Washington DC, the Swedish Embassy and the Swedish Women’s Educational Association organizes an annual Christmas Bazaar with a Lucia procession every year on the first Saturday of December.

We were lucky to attend the procession in Washington DC, and we were by no means disappointed by the local Swedish choir. They put on an excellent display at the Georgetown Waterfront with the Swedish Embassy as a backdrop.

Scandinavian Living contributorAnna is born and raised in the north of Sweden. While having lived outside of Sweden since 2007, Anna travels home at least twice a year to see friends and family. She loves cooking, fishing and travel. Right now she lives with her husband Ryan and baby boy Oliver in Washington, DC. Previous to DC she was based 4 years in Mozambique. Anna has Masters degrees in Economics and Political sciences from the University of Lund, Sweden and works as an ICT and Energy Specialist at the World Bank.

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