In Sweden, as in Denmark, Norway, and Finland, we celebrate Saint Lucia every year on 13th December. This was historically seen as the darkest night of the year, and Saint Lucia was the bringer of light.
There are various versions of the legend of this Sicilian saint, who lived around 300 AD. The essence of the story is that she became a devout Christian, refusing marriage to dedicate herself to a greater cause. Her would-be suitor had her arrested and persecuted, eventually culminating in a gruesome end which may or may not have included being stabbed in the throat, having boiling oil poured over her, and being burned at the stake, as well as ripping out her own eyes.
Today, Sankta Lucia arrives on the morning of 13th December, dressed in a white gown and with a crown of candles on her head, carrying a tray of gingerbread biscuits and saffron buns. (No, it doesn’t make sense to me either, but the buns and biscuits are yummy.)
Last night, the entire Swedish expat population of London descended on St Paul’s, with 2,500 tickets sold in total for a Lucia service in a collaboration between the Church of England and the Church of Sweden.
It’s a tricky balance for the religious establishment to put across their spiritual message to an audience that is rather there for what has become a secular tradition than for a serious message about God. I was pleasantly surprised at how much meaning I found in their words.
In the welcome at the start of the service, we chuckled, embarrassed, as we recognised ourselves in a lamentation on the modern Christmas tradition of “buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like”.
In his subsequent address, the Archbishop of Uppsala went on to look at the meaning of tradition: it’s not about holding on to the past, he said; traditions live on precisely because their essence still bears relevance to the modern day. He warned us against getting trapped in our inner feelings and nostalgia.
Lucia, he argued, was someone who refused to play by the rules. She did not accept to be married to the “normal” man chosen for her, and instead was true to herself and to her inner convictions. The message, then, is that we must dare to make our own choices and let others make theirs as well. And that’s a philosophy that I think we can all subscribe to.
The cathedral went dark, except for the flickering light of a few candles placed around the walls as well as two (Pagan?) Christmas trees wrapped in white lights. My eyes welled up as I heard the first strains of the well-known “Sankta Lucia” song from the back of the cathedral. (I was getting trapped in my inner feelings and nostalgia, shame on me.)
A brunette Lucia – all very modern, it used to be only blondes allowed – with a crown of candles led the procession down the aisle, followed by pairs of young women dressed in unflattering nightgowns, each holding a candle and singing in harmony. I was quite disappointed that the handful of men who trailed, as ever, at the back, were not wearing their traditional dunces’ hats as ‘star boys’.
Lucia is an enduring tradition in Sweden, one that we have strong memories of from our childhood and that we continue to celebrate as adults. In my case, I enthusiastically joined in several years at the Swedish church in London, where I would fiddle with my electric candle and systematically take it apart during the service.
My ever-energetic mum also organised a Lucia procession at my English primary school, roping in my sister’s friends and mine to dress up and parade in front of morning assembly. Unfortunately I came down with the flu so I missed out, though I was allowed to come along to watch.
Fast-forward about 15 years to my first winter in Geneva and I had another opportunity to bring this tradition to life, this time being the actual, official, Lucia. (For young children, anyone who wants to can be Lucia, and there will be several in the same procession; as we get older, it becomes more selective and there are campaigns and elections for the right to wear the sought-after crown.) I almost lost my throne when the crown didn’t fit (as already established, I have a very big cabeza) and another girl said, “Oh, it fits my head,” but I clung on to my queendom and another, larger, crown was found. We took the procession to the Lutheran Church in the Old Town, and so another memory was formed. But, oh dear, I’m getting caught up in inner feelings and nostalgia again.
Bringing light in the cold and dark north is obviously an important message in a region where Seasonal Affective Disorder is a big problem. It’s also a message that can be applied metaphorically to many other situations. The (female) Ambassador of Sweden talked of Lucia as a symbol of light, hope, and courage, and drew the parallel with Nelson Mandela, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. She also spoke of the winner of the Physics prize this year, Peter W. Higgs, whose theory of how particles acquire mass is fundamental to our very existence.
But no visit to Saint Paul’s Cathedral could take place without all the songs from Mary Poppins playing on repeat in my head, especially since I saw Saving Mr Banks I few weeks ago. So I left the service filled, not with songs of light and Christmas joy, but of Disney’s sugar-sweet nanny and her message – which, in the end, is not so different to the one we got in the church service…
Early each day to the steps of Saint Paul’s
The little old bird woman comes
In her own special way to the people she calls,
“Come, buy my bags full of crumbs;
Come feed the little birds,
Show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry
Their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
Feed the birds,” that’s what she cries
While overhead, her birds fill the skies
All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares
Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you:
“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.”