December 13th, just before dawn.
Nestled in the snow-laden pines of the Nordic is a house enveloped in darkness. Inside that house, a family sleeps. Mother rises first, careful not to make a sound and tiptoes her way to the rooms of the children. Gently she wakes them with a reminding whisper of the special day. They crawl out of bed half asleep yet eager to dress themselves in the white gowns they had laid out the night before.
Garlands of tinsel are tied around their waists, wreaths of lingonberry branches placed on their heads, and a candle given to each set of hands. All except for the eldest daughter, who wears a red sash and entire crown of candles. Then a single flame breaks the darkness and is passed among them until all lights are burning brightly. It’s time. Down the hall they walk in an illuminated procession, led by the girl with the glowing halo. They begin to sing:
Night walks with heavy steps
Round yard and hearth,
As the sun departs from earth,
Shadows are brooding.
There in our dark house,
Walking with lit candles,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Father, still tucked in bed, wakes to the melody from beyond the bedroom. There is warm light filling the hallway and as his family approaches their song grows louder, the glow grows brighter, and he is taken back in memory to the mornings of December 13th from his childhood. Santa Lucia. It’s been the same way ever since. They enter the room, still singing:
Night walks grand, yet silent,
Now hear its gentle wings,
In every room so hushed,
Whispering like wings.
Look, at our threshold stands,
White-clad with light in her hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
That’s the ideal, anyway. Plenty of busy families might just flip on the T.V. and enjoy the national televised version over breakfast, instead. Whether a family holds their own or not, one would certainly come across the celebration that day at school, the office, or at a local church. One might even have tickets for an evening performance by a famous choir where hundreds participate in a single procession.
It isn’t any wonder why Scandinavians, Swedes in particular, have placed so much importance on the Lucia tradition. In a part of the world where daylight is a precious commodity in the winter months, the Festival of Lights is huge.
Lucia of Syracuse was an Italian Christian Martyr who died in 304. It’s said that she carried food through dark catacombs to the persecuted poor in hiding and her crown of candles lit the way. Her name, Lucia or Lucy, comes from the Latin word Lux, meaning “light”. December 13th is within reach of the Winter Solstice, the hopeful return to longer brighter days.
What constitutes a Lucia celebration? Well, there’s the woman herself whom you can’t miss (she’s the one with lights on her head), the attendants who follow her and very often at least one star-boy, who dons a wizard hat covered in – you guessed it – stars. Most Americans have a negative connotation with an army of white robes and wizard hats but let’s remember to think cross-culturally about this. Lucia comes in peace, bearing light and singing songs. It’s all good.
In Sweden, where competition is a faux pas, it’s no-holds-barred when it comes to the starring role. Competition for Lucia is downright fierce. Luckily, with the implementation of color-blind casting, the girls with the longest blondest hair are no longer only up for consideration. In some cases men have even landed the part! A true egalitarian approach is taken at many preschools, however, where you’ll often find a whole slew of adorable Lucias. It’s from these early years that kids are learning the Lucia repertoire, embedding the songs deep into the national consciousness. However, you’ll still find attendants slacking at the semi-professional level, who write the words out to more obscure songs on their cardboard candle cuffs. Incidentally, they make a handy cheat sheet.
If you’re wondering how all of this candlelight and loose fabric doesn’t amount to a massive fire-hazard, rest-assured that participants under 12 are given battery-powered flambeaus. Other than that, Scandi’s are pretty passionate about their use of real candles, as anyone who has purchased a 100-count bag from IKEA can attest to. As long as performers don’t slug down too much glogg before the show, it usually turns out fine.
Glogg, if you are wondering is a warm spiced wine served throughout the winter holidays. Other foods typical for Lucia are lussekatter, saffron scented buns shaped like curled up cats and of course pepparkakor, also known as ginger snaps. The songs, the glow, the mugs of steamy wine, and alluring scents all coalesce to produce a delightfully warming effect. And that’s the whole point of Lucia, to warm and uplift the spirit by looking towards the light, and the promise of brighter days.
Darkness shall take flight soon,
From earth’s valleys.
So she speaks
Wonderful words to us:
A new day will rise again
From the rosy sky . . .
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Want to experience a taste of the Lucia tradition? Serve up some glogg and gingersnaps this holiday! By candlelight, of course.
Ginger Snaps Recipe
1 cup of corn syrup
5 ½ oz butter
2/3 cup of sugar
1 tbsp. ground ginger
1 tbsp. ground cloves
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp. baking soda
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
Oven temperature: 400°F
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and combine with sugar, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, corn syrup and baking soda. Stir into a paste. Leave to cool before adding the egg. Mix in the flour to make a dough. Refrigerate the dough for an hour. Lightly flour a work surface and roll out part of the dough until it’s wafer-thin. Make patterns with cookie cutters or a knife. Transfer to a greased cookie sheet and bake for 4-6 minutes.
Serve and pair with some Stilton cheese.
1 bottle of red wine
½ cup of sugar
18 whole cloves
8 whole cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
1 piece of fresh, peeled ginger (1 inch.)
1 orange peel
Serve with raisins and blanched almonds.
Mix wine, sugar and spices over medium heat. Turn off the heat when the sugar has melted. Cover and leave to stand for an hour or more. Strain off the spices.
For a stronger version add 4 oz or aquavit or vodka after cooking. Add raisins and almonds. Ladle into mugs and enjoy while it’s hot!