Gingerbread Cult of Saint Lucy

A re-run from 12 December 2006.

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Tomorrow’s the feast-day of St Lucy, and my son’s school started off the celebrations a day early. So this afternoon, along with a lot of other parents, I had saffron buns and watched kids in Ku Klux Klan and Santa outfits form a long line and sing Christmas carols. One end of the line was mostly a few bars ahead of the other.

As a pretty recent tradition, the morning of 13 December is celebrated in Sweden with quite a bit of ceremony. It involves white-robed, predominantly young female carolers led by a candle-crowned girl, performing a specialised repertoire of songs in honour of St Lucy (Sw. Lucia) and St Stephen in addition to generic Christmas carols. Considerable amounts of candles, saffron buns, ginger biscuits, coffee and sometimes mulled wine are consumed in the process. It’s a huge deal in kiddie schools and Kindergartens. Flabberghasted Nobel laureates are woken before dawn at their hotels and relentlessly be-carolled.

This very Catholic custom is uniquely Swedish, which may be slightly surprising given the fact that the country has been Protestant since the 16th century. But winter in Sweden is dark and cold, with the weather steadily getting worse through the long autumn months. We really need a Candle Maiden in deep December when we’re still a week on the wrong side of the solstice.

Björn Fromén of the Stockholm Tolkien Society translated a combination of the two most common Lucia hymns beautifully into High Elvish (and I just can’t believe it’s almost ten years since we put it on-line!). Here’s the first verse:

Lumna cormóres nar
peler ar mardor,
or ambar alanar
caitar i mordor,
íre mir lóna már
ninquitar lícumar:
Ela i calmacolinde,

And in Swedish:

Natten går tunga fjät
runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som soln förlät
skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus
stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia.
Sankta Lucia!

The tune is a traditional Neapolitan one, and the original Italian lyrics, coincidentally, are decidedly Tolkienian: Sul mare luccica l’astro d’argento…, “The silver star gleams over the sea…”.


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  1. #1 Phillip IV
    December 13, 2010

    or ambar alanar
    caitar i mordor

    And that’s why Swedes don’t like to leave the house in winter: because you can’t just walk into Mordor!

  2. #2 Peter Olausson
    December 13, 2010

    Note: The breads didn’t get their name from Lucia, but quite the opposite; “Lucifer’s cats”. 🙂

    Another note: Didn’t winter solstice, due to the lagging Julian calendar, take place on December 13 at some time? That would of course have been well before 1753, when the Gregorian switch robbed our ancestors of eleven days.

  3. #3 Martin R
    December 13, 2010

    Well, Lucifer means the Bringer of Light, and the name originally referred to the Morning Star. Lucia = Lucifer.

  4. #4 Lassi Hippeläinen
    December 13, 2010

    “uniquely Swedish”
    Using “Swedish” in a wide sense. St Lucia is celebrated also here in Finland by the Swedish speaking minority.

    “One end of the line was mostly a few bars ahead of the other.”
    You must have higher bar density than Dublin!

  5. #5 Birger Johansson
    December 13, 2010

    If the “Christian” holiday of Xmas is the sequestered pagan Roman midwinter holiday of Saturnalia, the Yuletide holiday (Jul in Swedish) would have been closer to the winter solstice, considering the lag of the Julian calendar.

    Thus I suspect Lucia is the old Swedish pagan midwinter feast given a cristian camouflage. But since the Christmas celebration -as set by decree by the Catholic Church is December 24th -after the solstice- Sweden ended up with two feasts in December (although Lucia is not a “proper” holiday, so we must still work today 🙁 ).

    At least, this is my own amateur reconstruction…
    On Pharyngula, I suggested that if Christmas is originally the pagan midwinter celebration -which here might have had elements of homage to the pagan gods Oden or Thor- an “authentic” christmas celebration should feature a small oak tree (substituting the oak where Odin’s priests hung the human sacrifices) decorated with small plastic human figures hanging by their necks.
    Since people are good at cognitive dissonance, the parents would no doubt manage to convince themselves that this would be “cute”! (see the original santa claus figure from Holland for some non-PC components: a black slave, supposedly an enslaved devil would be serving santa. And those children who had not been good would be taken away!)

  6. #6 Mattias Westermark
    December 13, 2010

    Caroling traditions in sweden are numerous although largely forgotten, and youngsters disturbed honest-sleeping countryfolk on various occasions over the year. The Lucia tradition as we see it today actually isn’t that old, merely about 100 years or so, although some roots of the tradition are much older.

  7. #7 Florian
    December 13, 2010

    Maybe it’s just me who has a weird sense of humor but I had a good laugh on the 5th comment about the Oak decorated with hung plastic humans. 😉 Well, is a human nailed on a cross a “better” symbol to celebrate something?

  8. #8 Birger Johansson
    December 14, 2010

    The Japanese celebrates Cristmas despite having no religious connection, which paves the way for odd misunderstandings.
    I have heard of an example (possibly apochrypal) with a shop that advertised for Xmas with a crucified Santa!

  9. #9 Mattias
    December 20, 2010

    Neither the melody nor the text ‘Sul mare luccica’ are in fact ‘traditionally Neapolitan’. Gunnar Wennerberg (minister of education, poet and composer) thought so when he heard them outside Capri and introduced the melody in Sweden in the 1850:s, but they were in fact spread by broadsheet prints immediately prior to his italian journeys. Some have tried to argue that Teodoro Cottrau was only the compiler and publisher of this song, but most are convinced that it is stylistically best placed in the 1840:s. The melody is incidentally still very popular in Campania.

    / Mattias

  10. #10 Martin R
    December 20, 2010


    most are convinced that it is stylistically best placed in the 1840:s.

    … and, you mean, probably written by Cottrau?

  11. #11 Mattias
    December 21, 2010

    Yes, that’s what I mean. Most coeval composers of light entertainment music churned out barcarolle tunes like this one.

  12. #12 Martin R
    December 21, 2010

    I churn out bark roll tunes, myself. They’re all about cinnamon and Medieval Russian letters written on the white bark of birch-trees.

  13. #13 Mattias
    December 21, 2010

    He, he, he. Who would have thought that the folk tune ‘barkbrödslåten’ was a migrant barcarolle melody.

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