By Tatty Maclay
As I write this, the first snow of winter is falling outside my window and thoughts turn naturally to Christmas and other winter celebrations. This afternoon, my daughter’s ‘dagis’ will hold their annual ‘lyktfest’, in which the children carry their own-made paper lanterns through the forest singing songs of light in the darkness. After that, it’s not long until Första Advent, when advent stars and the first of four advent candles are lit to start the countdown to Christmas. And then, in these parts at least, there is always an outdoor gathering around a bonfire on the winter solstice, December 22, the shortest day of year.
I love the way Swedes have established and carried on these traditions, so that instead of a endless, gloomy tunnel, winter feels more like a clear, starry night sky, the inky blackness interspersed and illuminated with pricks of light and familiar focal points to guide you through.
Of course, the most famous, and uniquely Scandinavian, celebration of light is St Lucia. My eldest son took part in the beautiful candlelit procession at our local church last year (see picture) and it was an extremely moving and evocative scene. (When I told a non-Swedish friend I was going to St Lucia that afternoon she thought I was off on a Caribbean holiday - no such luck!)
I realised I knew next to nothing about the origins of the celebrations, other than that there was some connection to a Sicilian saint. It seems the tradition can be traced back to both St Lucia, a martyr from Syracuse who died in 304, and the ancient Lussinatta (Lussi night), which was also marked on December 13. (Until the 18th century, December 13 was believed to be the longest night of the year). And so, as with all things, light (the name Lucia comes from the word lux, light) and dark (Lussi is closely linked to Lucifer) are two sides of the same coin.
Lussi was a female demon or witch who was said to ride through the night with her followers. Between Lussi night and Yule (the pre-Christian religious midwinter festival), trolls and evil spirits were on the move and it was especially dangerous to be outside on Lussi Night, particularly if you were a child who had been naughty (best to keep mine indoors then…) Animals were said to speak to each other on Lussi night and farmers traditionally gave their farm animals extra feed.
Legend also has it that no work should be done on the night of the holiday, or else Lussi will punish the household. And that, along with most Scandinavian rituals for banishing darkness and celebrating the light, is a tradition I’m more than happy to adopt!