Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gingerbread Cult of St Lucy

Tomorrow's the feast-day of St Lucy, and my son's school started off the celebrations a day early. So this afternoon, along with a lot of other parents, I had saffron buns and watched kids in Ku Klux Klan and Santa outfits form a long line and sing Christmas carols. One end of the line was mostly a few bars ahead of the other.

As a pretty recent tradition, the morning of 13 December is celebrated in Sweden with quite a bit of ceremony. It involves white-robed, predominantly young female carolers led by a candle-crowned girl, performing a specialised repertoire of songs in honour of St Lucy (Sw. Lucia) and St Stephen in addition to generic Christmas carols. Considerable amounts of candles, saffron buns, ginger biscuits, coffee and sometimes mulled wine are consumed in the process. It's a huge deal in kiddie schools and Kindergartens. Flabberghasted Nobel laureates are woken before dawn at their hotels and relentlessly be-carolled.

This very Catholic custom is uniquely Swedish, which may be slightly surprising given the fact that the country has been Protestant since the 16th century. But winter in Sweden is dark and cold, with the weather steadily getting worse through the long autumn months. We really need a Candle Maiden in deep December when we're still a week on the wrong side of the solstice.

Björn Fromén of the Stockholm Tolkien Society translated a combination of the two most common Lucia hymns beautifully into High Elvish (and I just can't believe it's almost ten years since we put it on-line!). Here's the first verse:
Lumna cormóres nar
peler ar mardor,
or ambar alanar
caitar i mordor,
íre mir lóna már
ninquitar lícumar:
Ela i calmacolinde,
And in Swedish:
Natten går tunga fjät
runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som soln förlät
skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus
stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia.
Sankta Lucia!
The tune is a traditional Neapolitan one, and the original Italian lyrics, coincidentally, are decidedly Tolkienian: Sul mare luccica l'astro d'argento..., "The silver star gleams over the sea...".

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Anonymous Leslie Spitz-Edson said...

As an American-Swede (I'm trying for the reverse of a "Swedish-American"-type label) I've long been interested in this topic. I've never yet really delved deeply into it, though, so please correct me if I'm wrong.

My impression is that the current Sankta Lucia tradition that you describe is a product of a sort of university-based 19th-century nationalism that took rural "jultid" customs and streamlined/rationalized/cleaned them up for a more urban, educated, refined audience. I also believe it's true that some of those original rural customs were not necessarily embraced by the church, whether the earlier (Catholic) or the more recent (Protestant).

The rural traditions I mention varied greatly, particularly by region. Apparently they included lussegubbar and lussegummar (women dress up as old men and vice versa), the lussebrud and lusse-brudgummen, the lussebok (quite different than today's charming julbok), and even the Halm-Staffan.

There seems to be quite a bit of scholarly speculation on the origin of these customs. Terry Gunnell (my main source of information) writes: "In their extant form, the customs connected with Lussi were obviously not Christian, but they can hardly be regarded as the concrete remnants of any ancient tradition to do with the old winter solstice. As the figures of the Lussiner demonstrate most effectively, these traditions should rather be seen as a hotch-potch of various early customs and beliefs associated with the Yuletide period in general that have become mixed up with other more superficial beliefs connnected with the Christian saint's day. Here they were in turn linked to the image of Lucifer (attracted by the name 'lucia' and the appearance of the horned 'julebukk') and the more widespread phenomenon of the 'Wild Ride'..." (This quote is from Gunnell's "The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia", page 97-98.)

By the way, I enjoyed the elvish lyrics, but Swedish is the real music to MY ears! And also, Dr. Gunnell (quoted above) also has a Tolkien connection--I think I read a paper of his on line recently about some Tolkien-esque topic.

10 April, 2007 17:26  
Blogger Martin said...

A very erudite comment! I've seen Gunnell's book but read very little in it. Thought it was mainly about Old Norse matters.

14 April, 2007 22:31  

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