Pagan Swedish Christmas Rituals

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These days, Swedish Christmas traditions are a mix of traditions and legends borrowed from several countries. Santa Claus came from Germany, but he looks like a Coca-Cola Santa from America. The original Swedish traditions were pretty far from the Disneyesque Christmases that are common nowadays. Before Santa arrived, back in the 19th century, the Christmas goat delivered the presents. This goat was apparently a rather angry and grumpy creature who just threw the gifts through the door.

Then there is Sankta Lucia – a beloved tradition taking place December 13:th. The beautiful Lucia and her maids arrive early in the morning to spread warmth and joy. They sing carols and sometimes offer gingerbread. Most Swedish towns and cities have elections each year, where you vote the Lucia. It’s kind of like a beauty contest. And the song Lucia and her maids sing when entering may surprise foreigners – since it’s the classic Italian song “Santa Lucia”, which among others Dean Martin used to perform. The Swedish Christmas version has of course completely different lyrics.

However, the origins of this beautiful tradition are far from cosy. St. Lucy was a young woman of Sicily in the fourth century who, like many other early Christian women, was prepared to give her life rather than submit to a pagan husband. One tradition has it that she had her own eyes plucked out in order to mar her beauty and make her unattractive to a suitor. Another tradition says that when she refused to marry the man her parents had chosen for her, the man denounced her to the authorities as a Christian. The authorities ordered her eyes to be plucked out and they attempted to burn her, but the fire kept going out. Finally, she was stabbed in the throat and died.

St. Lucy is often depicted in art with her eyes on a platter. Her name means “light” and light plays a major role in customs connected with her feast. In the old Julian calendar, December 13th was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and bonfires were lit to celebrate the renewal of the light as the days began to grow longer. Even after calendar reform moved the solstice to a later date, the bonfires continued to celebrate the saint of light, Santa Lucia. Although the saint lived in Sicily, her feast day became popular in the far north, in Scandinavia, where the darkness of winter is especially deep. In Sweden, the oldest daughter in a family is the Lussibrud, or Lucy Bride. Dressed in a white gown, with a red sash, for martyrdom, and wearing an evergreen crown with seven lighted candles, the Lucy Bride wakes the family with coffee and traditional foods, including Lucy cakes and gingerbread. There are also town and city processions with an elected Lussibrud who is accompanied by other girls dressed in white and carrying candles and by star boys (a very degrading role to play) and baker boys. The star boys are also dressed in white and wear conical hats decorated with stars and moons – yes, I said it’s degrading! They carry lighted paper lanterns on long sticks. The baker boys help distribute the various baked goods that are traditional on the feast. In Sweden today there is even a national Lussibrud. However, she doesn’t have her gouged out eyes on a platter.

In 1944, the Lucia tradition was exported to Denmark.

Blood. Gore. Torture. Martyrs. Everything we need for a merry Christmas!

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