We leave the balmy climes of the South Pacific and head to the long nights and short days of winter in Sweden. Because Sweden lies so far north, much of its folklore, mythology, and culture revolve around sun and light -- or the absence thereof. The winter solstice, when the days finally begin to grow longer again, falls only four days before Christmas, so the celebration of the two are often intermingled. Perhaps the most unique and cherished tradition in the Swedish Christmas season is "Lucia", or Sankta Lucia, known in English as St. Lucy and in Italian/Latin as Santa Lucia. Lucia was a third century Sicilian martyr from Syracuse, known for having brought food and aid to Christians in hiding. Her feast day is December 13 and is celebrated in a number of countries, but not always in the same fashion. In Sweden, Lucy is one of the few saints celebrated in this overwhelmingly Protestant / secular society. She is commemorated by the election of a teenage girl to represent her with a white robe and a crown of candles, leading others in a processional and the singing of carols. (The classic tune, "Santa Lucia," was written in Naples, Italy and has nothing to do with the feast of St. Lucy; the Swedes use other lyrics customized to their purposes.) It is said that the real Lucy used this crown with candles to light her way and to keep both hands free to carry provisions on her benevolent missions. In Scandinavia, tradition has it that a proper celebration of Lucia, complete with lots of candlelight, will help one make it through the long winter days until spring. (To see a video of a Lucia done right, click here.)
As in most other Western countries, Christmas in Sweden is the typical mixture of religious, secular, and pagan traditions. Our friend Marianne tells us that churches are the fullest on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (the first Sunday in Advent) and Christmas morning at a service called the julotta. On Christmas Eve the big feast happens, called smörgåsbord (literally "bread and butter table"), filled with much more than the name indicates: ham, meatballs, salmon, herring, and Janssons frestelse, a casserole of potatoes, onions, bread crumbs and cream. Children expect a visit either from Santa or a Nordic folkloric character called a tomte -- a creature that can best be described as a gnome or dwarf.
The Swedish name for Christmas, Jul, comes from an ancient mid-winter festival celebrated by the Nordic and Germanic tribes. With the advent of Christianity, it eventually became the name for the Christmas holiday. And so we wish you...
God Jul! (prod. gode [with a Minnesotan "o"] yule)!