Ella – December 4, 2017
While celebrating Thanksgiving with my family gathered around, we began to talk about holiday traditions. We have so many: baking gingerbread men and other decorative cookies, special ornaments on the tree, and hometown events.
Several generations removed from my ancestors who immigrated to America from Denmark, I enjoyed listening to older family members talk about their memories, stories and traditions that have faded over the years. I have seen pictures of my great-great grandmother and one of the founders of The Danish Home, Anna Mikkelsen, wearing a wreath of candles. I always thought it looked so beautiful, but I never knew the significance of it.
Inspired by our conversation about customs from the homeland, I asked questions and did some research to find out more about this crown of light. I discovered that it is traditional for girls to dress as Saint Lucy on Saint Lucy’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Lucy, or even St. Lucia’s Day, as the name varies from place to place.
Celebrated on December 13th, the day has a lot of history and significance both as a pagan celebration and one with Christian roots. It became widely celebrated in Sweden in the late 1700s and is also celebrated in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Bosnia and Croatia.
St. Lucia was a young martyr, killed for her Christian faith in 304. The stories, passed along by monks (who brought Christianity to Sweden) through generations leading all the way up to mine, say St. Lucia would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome. She was also very generous to the homeless and those in need. The legend is that she wore candles on her head to light her way and to free up her hands to carry food and other offerings.
Making the illumination even more fitting, “Lucy” means “light.” The crown of candles is traditionally made of lingonberry branches, a type of evergreen, and symbolizes new life in winter.
In many Scandinavian towns and celebrations in the U.S., a girl is chosen to play St. Lucia in a procession. She typically wears a white, pajama-like gown, sometimes with a red sash, and a lighted wreath on her head. Boys often join in the procession in white clothing, and they all sing traditional songs. December 13th is also the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, on the old Julian calendar, and the festivals bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year.
At The Danish Home’s Lillejuleaften celebration on December 9, just four days before St. Lucy’s Day, there will be a St. Lucia procession following a church service and before dinner. My family and I are happy to be attending this “little yule eve” (the last of The Danish Home’s 125th anniversary celebration events this year), and we’re especially excited to join the procession!
Elsewhere in America, St. Lucy is commemorated on December 13th by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, when red vestments are worn, and candles often illuminate church services during Advent on the Sunday closest to December 13th.
Closer to home, in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, an annual St. Lucia Festival of Lights includes a torch-lit procession down the sidewalks of Clark Street, kicking off at the Swedish American Museum. The procession is followed by the telling of the St. Lucia legend, and Swedish holiday treats (including traditional pepparkakor, or ginger snaps) are served at the museum.
The city of Geneva, Illinois, kicks off its holiday season with an annual Christmas Walk. During the weekend-long celebration, a girl is chosen to portray Santa Lucia and processes through the town to the great tree lighting.
Many of the celebrations in Sweden, other Scandinavian countries, and even the U.S. have treats, including pepparkakor and St. Lucia buns, also known as saffron bread or lussekatter.
My family and I are looking forward to checking out some of the local St. Lucia celebrations this holiday season. And this year, instead of gingerbread men, we are going to try baking the traditional St. Lucy’s Day pepparkakor. I’ll let you know how they turn out!