Saint Lucia - Celebrating Light

Although the main Christian saint of December is arguably Saint Nick, December 13 is the day of Saint Lucia. The celebration of Christian saints is minimal in the Lutheran Church, the largest denomination in the Nordic countries, yet Saint Lucia is still honored every year as the bearer of light. Every year young women are chosen to dress up as Saint Lucia, donning a crown of candles while singing songs in a beautiful procession of light. In Finland, the celebration of Lucia is most prevalent in the Swedish-speaking community. Finland's official Lucia is chosen through an election organised by Folkhälsan, HBL and Svenska Yle. If you want to see this year's Lucia, the event begins at the Senate Square Cathedral December 13 at 17:00 in Helsinki Cathedral, and at 18:00 the procession will descend the stairs to the Senate Square and on to Aleksanterinkatu.. Go early to get a spot with a good view. In addition, towns in Sweden or Swedish-speaking parts of Finland have their own Lucias, and schools usually have a class responsible for organizing a Lucia procession for that school. All of these Lucias have matching Lucia outfits: a long white dress, a red belt and a green wreath with candles. Lucia is accompanied by her maids and star boys - sometimes also Christmas elves. The main criterion for Lucia candidates is a good singing voice - the Lucia group performs several Christmas songs, especially in public places like banks, hospitals, and homes for the elderly. The whole tradition is rooted in good work, and the election and performances of Finland’s official Lucia are part of a fundraiser for poor families in Finland.

 

A Saint from Sicily

But who exactly was the real Saint Lucia? According to legend, Lucia (or Lucy, as is her anglicized name) was a young Sicilian Christian who lived in the late 3rd century A.D, a time where Christians were persecuted. As a young woman, she turned down a courter, who in his wrath revealed her faith, leading to her execution. According to some versions, her eyes were even gauged out before she was killed, and she has become a patron saint of the blind. As Lucia died a martyr, she was canonized and her day to be celebrated in December 13, which used to also be the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Thus, it was natural that her day be celebrated with food and light. As the Saint of the shortest day, she was also met with some supernatural suspicion, especially as her name is the feminine version of the name "Lucifer", the name meaning "light bringer". With the calendar reform, the solstice was moved to a week later and the day of Lucia became less important, yet it remained a day of treats and candles and the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Whereas most Saints are no longer remembered in Scandinavia, Lucia lives on. First as a more raucous event where a procession would bring food and drinks. Later as a more harmonious and "proper" procession of a beautiful song. The Lucia processions that visit the elderly are still equipped with trays of gingerbread or - in Sweden - saffron buns, just like historical Saint Lucia was said to bring food to the sick and old.

Lucia Saffron Buns - "Lussebullar". Photo: Wikimedia commons

Keeping to the traditions… too much?

Some have asked whether the way a national Lucia is elected in Finland - and formerly is Sweden - is too much of a beauty pageant. The female candidates, aged usually between 18 and early twenties, are primarily ranked for their singing, but as the voters (the general public) are only presented smiling photos and a few words on how the candidate wants to spread happiness in the role of Lucia, there is not too much to go on. Sincere congratulations to everyone, who has been in this final voting round, but to be fair, the final Lucia has never represented a race other than Scandinavian (preferably blonde!), and rarely does she wear glasses or have a body type outside the average - features the undesirable features are rarely seen even among the candidates. At least the photos are only of the faces of the candidates, and there's definitely no televised runway or swimwear contest to get through! However, in Sweden national Lucia is no longer elected, as this was deemed obsolete, instead, there are local Lucias for every town and school.

Another question concerning equality has also been raised - should men be allowed to be Lucia? As with all things of tradition, this too has been met with resistance. Traditionally boys participating in the Lucia procession have had to accept the roles of star boys or Christmas elves. In 2014, a school in Sweden rose to publicity after the principal explicitly forbade boys from dressing up as Lucia or her maids - and girls from dressing up as star boys or elves. Nevertheless, traditions always change and adapt. In 2018, the Lucia nomination of Malmö welcomed candidates of all genders. In addition, the committee didn't even want photos of the candidates and asked Lucia to be selected based on their engagement in their community. In the end, the Malmö Lucia 2018 turned out to be a woman after all. Still, the change in the criteria makes sense, because Lucia, as it is celebrated in the Nordic countries, is not just about the historical figure from Sicily but rather a symbol of light and comfort.