As mentioned below, the Feast of St. Lucia is celebrated with particular verve in Scandinavia. Given how short the days are come December, it makes all the sense in the world that they’d set a day aside to honor the patron saint of light. But if these folks were really serious about celebrating light — especially daylight and the return of longer days — wouldn’t it have made more sense to honor St. Lucy on the 21st of December? That’s the winter solstice, after all.
Interestingly, December 13 was the winter solstice at the time the Feast of St. Lucy was established. This wasn’t because people during the High Middle Ages couldn’t measure the passage of time accurately, but because they lived according to the old Julian calendar, which as we already know had been diverging from actual solar time since it was instigated in 46 B.C.. Thus the feast of the patron saint of light would seem to have some rather suspicious origins. Indeed it seems quite likely that it was a (successful) Catholic attempt to co-opt a major pagan festival.
Certainly the rituals and costumes that surround the holiday in Scandinavia point to a non-Christian celebration — and it sounds darn fun. As I understand it, in Sweden the Feast of St. Lucy gets underway with the eldest daughter of the household, who, while the parents are asleep, prepares a breakfast of among other things, lussekatter. She then puts on a white robe and a head wreath made of lingonberry branches and tall lighted candles. Hot wax dripping painfully onto her scalp, she forms a procession with her siblings and serves breakfast-in-bed to her parents. A nice-sounding tradition indeed, and a lovely kickoff to the Christmas season.
And indeed that’s what it is to most university students in Scandinavia, whom I’m told like to host dinner parties with friends on December 13th before they head home to their families for Christmas. Many towns also hold special celebrations on the day, appointing a young woman to be their own St. Lucy. In the evening she wears the lighted wreath and leads a procession through town. In some places she hands out gifts, in others food. Different cities have different traditions, but all feature a procession of many white-clad “angels” or “Christ children” with St. Lucy at the front.
But a solemn time of religious reflection it ain’t! Or so I understand. Especially for young people it’s a big day of parties and gratuitous consumption of rich little saffron-flavored rolls whose name I forget.