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The Lucia celebration represents one of the foremost cultural traditions in Sweden
and is celebrated on the 13 th of December every year. Lucia means "light," and
December 13 th falls close to the winter solstice – the darkest day of the year - so on
Lucia Day you will see thousands of young girls and boys emerge from the darkness
of a Swedish winter’s day and gently silence the crowds with a procession of light.
Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light in the dark
Swedish winters. The Lucia tradition can be traced back both to St Lucia of Syracuse, a
martyr who died in 304 A.D. and to the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam’s first wife. In
agrarian Sweden, young people used to dress up as Lucia figures on the 13 th of December
and wander from house to house singing songs and scrounging for food. The custom did
not become universally popular in Swedish society until the 20 th century, when schools in
particular began promoting it.
A kid’s favourite
Today, Lucia is mainly a festivity for kids. On the morning of Lucia Day, the children in the
family will often wake their parents with a breakfast of lussekatter (saffron buns),
pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) and glögg (hot spiced wine). The kids will be dressed in
their special Lucia costumes and they’ll sing Lucia songs. The songs are often about
Christmas, joy and the coming of lighter days. Of the nine million people who live in Sweden,
almost two million are under 18. Swedish law makes sure children are well protected and
defend their rights. In 1979, Sweden became the first country to forbid corporal
punishment, making it a criminal offence.
How to Lucia
An essential ingredient in a traditional Swedish Lucia celebration is to get the costumes for
the procession right. Lucia herself, the light bearer, is dressed in a white gown with a red
ribbon tied around her waist. On her head rests a crown, often made from lingonberry
branches, of glowing candles – today it is also acceptable with the battery-powered ones.
Lucia is followed by her tärnor (handmaidens). They also wear white gowns, but without the
crown of candles. Instead they carry a candle in their hand to light up their way. Boys take
part in the procession, playing different roles associated with Christmas. Some may be
dressed in the same kind of white gown, but with a cone-shaped hat decorated with golden
stars, called stjärngossar (star boys), some may be dressed up as tomtenissar (Santa's elves),
carrying lanterns and some may be dressed up as gingerbread men.
Who wants to be Lucia?
Competition for the role of Lucia can be tough. Each year, a national Lucia is proclaimed in
one or other of the TV channels, while every town and village chooses its own Lucia.
Candidates are presented in the local newspaper a couple of weeks in advance. The
modern tradition of having public processions in the Swedish cities started in 1927 when a
newspaper in Stockholm elected an official Lucia for Stockholm that year. Sweden is an
egalitarian place these days, so any child can be chosen as Lucia for the annual procession.
“Lucia has been a happy celebration of light and joy for hundreds of years in Sweden. It is a
day for families to come together and enjoy some traditional julmys (Christmas coziness). As
a parent I am especially happy to be woken up on Lucia Day by my children’s light
procession accompanied by sweet saffron buns and hot coffee. This year we will make the
buns with saffron grown on Zanzibar – a real treat!”
Swedish Ambassador to Tanzania