Growing up in Finland, December was a "big deal" not only because of Christmas, but because Saint Lucia day was Dec. 13. Starting in kindergarten and continuing all throughout high school, on this day one lucky girl was selected to be "Saint Lucia." For many girls, this was a big deal, though I personally — shy as I was — really feared being picked and much preferred being one of Lucia’s handmaids.
So what’s the deal with Lucia, and who — or what — was she?
It is not certain how the Saint Lucia tradition found its way to Sweden, and then also to Finland. The legend of Saint Lucia is known in most European countries, and has its roots in Sicily, Italy. It is thought that during a time when the rulers of the land did not approve of Christianity, a woman named Lucia decided to try and spread the word of God and help the poor. She gave all her dowry to the poor, something that the man she was to marry did not like, at all. Lucia was put on trial, and when she refused to renounce her Christian beliefs, she was declared a witch and sentenced to be burned. But when the guards tried to light the fire, it would not light. Unfortunately, this did not save Lucia, who ultimately was stabbed to death.
No one knows exactly how this legend has transformed into the unique Swedish tradition celebrated today, but there are certainly some elements that can be recognized. Saint Lucia, a girl dressed in a long white dress with a thick, red, ribbon, and a crown of candles in her hair (in schools and kindergarten the candles are electric, but at bigger Lucia events the candles are actually real), brings light and good spirit to everybody, lightening up the cold December weather. Saint Lucia is clearly not alone, but instead brings her whole entourage of handmaids, all also dressed in white gowns and holding candles in their hands. Boys get to join the parade dressed up as "star men," holding stars on sticks, and have tall paper cones on their heads. Or, in some schools and kindergartens, they're dressed up as elves or even gingerbread men (these are modern additions to the traditional Saint Lucia parade).
Both in Sweden and Finland Saint Lucia is a nationally celebrated tradition, and many cities and towns also have their own Saint Lucia parades. The people of the city or town can then vote for their favorite girl out of several candidates, and the winner is crowned with the candlelit crown on December 13th together with her entourage. In Sweden, traditional lussekatter, saffron-flavored buns, are commonly served as part of the Lucia celebration. In Finland, gingerbread or other sweet pastries are often handed out.
In Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus College celebrated its 73rd annual Festival of St. Lucia this year, and in Finland a Lucia has been crowned in the Helsinki Cathedral on Dec. 13 since the 1940s. This year, 18-year-old high school student Elin Andersson was crowned Lucia, and following her coronation, she will appear at around 80 different events over the next month in her role as "a bringer of light."
Traditionally, Lucia is blond, which again shows how this Sicilian legend has become more Nordic. The year I was finally picked to be Lucia — because I was taller than all other girls (and boys) in my grade and it would look good for me to lead the parade — my hair was pitch black. I was also terrified, as I had to stand in front of my whole school and say a verse, something about bringing light. It was my first and last time being a "Saint."
If you want to celebrate the Festival of St. Lucia at home, put on a white gown, light some candles, maybe sing a song, and enjoy some lussekatter by checking out our recipe here.