As the winter holidays approach, we hear much about Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and New Year's, but little about a lovely, cherished custom of Scandinavia where the Christmas season begins on Dec. 13 with St. Lucia Day, and ends on Jan. 13 with the feast of St. Knut.
St. Lucia Day is more widely observed in Sweden than in other Scandinavian countries, and although primarily a family observance, there are public ceremonies in most offices, hospitals, factories, schools and churches.
In the home, in early morning, the eldest daughter wakes the parents and the rest of the family and serves them coffee or tea and a saffron-flavored bread (Lussekake) or buns (Lussekatter, Lucy cats).
Symbolizing St. Lucy, the Italian virgin martyr, she wears a flowing white gown, signifying purity, with a red sash for the blood the martyr shed. She wears a metal crown of leaves studded with seven tapers, which before electricity were lighted candles but now are battery-powered. She is followed by her sisters in white, and white-clad brothers with tall, cone-shaped paper hats with stars. They are called star boys.
Here in America, the Church of Sweden in New York City holds a grand ritual on the Saturday closest to the 13th that attracts so many people that they must hold multiple performances at a larger church nearby.
It begins with the church entirely darkened, and at an appointed time Lucy enters followed by 50 to 70 handmaids and star boys, each carrying a light and singing the Italian melody of "Santa Lucia" with Swedish lyrics. It's quite moving and dramatic as the lamps gradually light up the church.
Incidentally, the Swedish pronounce it "Lu-SEE-uh"; the Italians say "Lu-CHEE-ah." The connection between the Swedish and a Sicilian is vague, but one theory is that Lucy carried smuggled food to hiding Christians in tunnels, and to free her hands to carry the food, she wore a wreath of candles on her head.