December Celebrations Santa Lucia

By Jan Westmore

When the snow is on the ground and there is a chill in the air, on the longest, darkest day of the year, medieval legends say that Santa Lucia carried food and drink during a severe famine to the poor people of Värmland, Sweden. She came to them in a circle of light on a ship across the stormy Lake Vanern. Her presence was felt during a plague as she cared for the dying. Always, she was seen as a beautiful young woman clothed in white surrounded in a glowing light as if her head was encircled in a ring of candles.

Family traditions often date back to the lands of our forefathers, passed from generation to generation. In America, many Scandinavians celebrate Santa Lucia on the Sunday nearest December 13, the time of the winter solstice on the Julian Calendar.

The real Lucia was a young woman born in Sicily to a noble family in 284 A. D. — the height of the Christian persecutions by the Romans. She died a martyr at the age of twenty after having devoted her brief life to serving Christ by helping the poor. Legends claim she smuggled food, as a teen, to other Christians hiding in the underground caves in Syracuse. Purportedly, she wore torches strapped to her head for light since both arms were laden with food.

Stories tell she vowed to remain a virgin, rebuffed her suitors and donated her entire dowry to the poor. One spurned suitor, who had fallen for her beauty, and coveted her dowry, reported her Christian allegiance to the Romans authorities. They arrested her and threatened to force her into prostitution. When the guards attempted to haul her away, they could not lift her, and thus accused her of witchcraft. They sentenced her to be burned at the stake, but the fire would not ignite. Finally, she succumbed when the Roman executioners ran a sword through her neck. By the sixth century, the Roman Catholic Church venerated Lucia, making her a patron saint. Generations continue to esteem her for her courage and faith, and the sympathy she demonstrated for the poor.

The story of Santa Lucia traveled across the European continent into Scandinavia as Christianity spread. People still honor Santa Lucia today, on December 13, not only in Sweden but in other parts of the world, especially among Swedish speaking persons. Santa Lucia Fests occur in Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Italy, Finland, Hungary, Malta, Bosnia, Bavaria, Croatia, Germany, Slovakia and Spain. She represents light and hope during the long winter nights.

Tradition holds that early in morning, the oldest daughter in the family dons a white gown with a wide red sash and a crown of candles set in lingonberry branches. Her sisters follow also wearing white gowns carrying candles accompanied by her brothers wearing star-studded coned hats and star-tipped wands or gingerbread boy suits. The procession sings “Sankta Lucia” as they parade throughout the house. Lucia brings her parents and family lussekattor (saffron buns), pepparkakor (ginger cookies) and hot coffee. Public celebrations vary in the number of attendants depending on the venue, but one young lady is selected bas Lucia based on the quality of her voice and her mastery of the Swedish lyrics. Lucia leads the procession singing the following song.

Sankta Lucia (Swedish)

Natten går tunga fjät

Santa Lucia Celebration at the Young Scandinavians Club in San Francisco

runt gård och stuga

Kring jord, som sol’n förlät

skuggorna ruva.

Då I vårt mörka hus,

stiga med tända ljus,

Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia!

Natten nar stor och stum

nu hör det svingar

i alla tysta rum,

sus som av vingar

Se på vår tröskel står vitkläd

med ljus I hår

Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia!

Mörkret skall flykta snart ur jordens dalar.

Så hon ett underbart ord till oss talar

Dagen skall åter ny, stiga ur rosig sky,

Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia!

Santa Lucia Song (one English translation)

Hark! Through the dark some night

Sounds come a winging:

Lo! ‘Tis the Queen of Light

Joyfully singing

And in her garment white,

Wearing her crown of light,

Santa Lucia,

Santa Lucia!

Deep in the northern sky

Bright stars are beaming;

Christmas is drawing nigh

Candles are gleaming.

Welcome thou vision rare,

Lights glowing in thy hair.

Santa Lucia. Santa Lucia!

Sample celebrations:
Young Scandinavian Club
Swedish American Hall
2174 Market St. (near Church)
San Francisco, CA
December 9, 4:30 pm

House of Sweden
2900 K St. NW
Washington, D. C.
December 1, 5 pm

About the author:
Author, scholar, and retired corporate executive Jan Westmore, a Sierra Nevada foothills resident and native Californian, is a contributing author to two books, plus a writer and photographer for numerous magazine articles. The publication date of her new book “Images of America: Colfax” is January 14, 2013. Learn more by visiting and

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