Irminsul Ęttir

Lucy Fest

©1995 by Susan Granquist. All rights reserved.

It begins in the darkest hours of the morning of December 13 during the tide of Uht (2 a.m. to 4 a.m.). A young woman wearing a white gown, a red sash and a crown of lingonberry twigs and blazing candles emerges out of the darkness carrying a tray of rich saffron buns and steaming coffee to wake the family. Throughout Sweden the feast day of Lucia, or Lucy, is celebrated as a festival of lights. The Lucia Queen, or Lussibruden (Lucy Bride) leads the processions. Albert Eskerod, who describes Swedish holidays in Arets Fester (The Year's Holidays), believes the tradition of honoring Lucia came originally from Germany and speculates that the festival was originated in Sweden by Vikings who traveled south on peaceful trading expeditions to Italy and brought back the stories of the Christian martyr, Lucia.

There are good reasons to question that conclusion. We do know that Lucia is said to be one of the earliest saints. As early as the sixth century she was venerated in Rome as a virgin martyr; although her story as it is known today was written by St. Aldhelm of Sherborne at the end of the seventh century. Included in the evidence for the authenticity of the celebration of this Christian saint is the note that her original feast day (day of her martyrdom) was on the solstice which was December 13 by the Julian calendar rather than December 21 which it became with the change to the Gregorian calendar in the 1300s, linking it with the far older Yule and Winter festivals of pre-Christian times.

There are two legends which are attributed to "St. Lucia" which are also attributed to Lucia which are similar but seem to have originated in earlier legends. At one time Sweden was in the grip of a terrible famine and at the height of winter when things were their worst a ship sailed across Lake Vannern with a beautiful young woman dressed all in white at its helm. She was so radiant that there was a glow of light about her head. It was St. Lucia with a shipload of food. In Syracuse the people were in the midst of a famine and they gathered in the cathedral to implore God to help in the name of St. Lucia. A ship loaded with wheat sailed into the harbor as they prayed. This is the explanation given for the cuccidata, or cooked wheat which is an ingredient in all festival foods. Similar porridges and puddings are also prepared for friends, family and otherworldly visitors and as offerings to household spirits in Northern European and Scandinavian homes.. It is significant that the Italian/Roman version was an appeal to a "local saint" while the northern version was of a shining lady on a ship.

The explanation of peaceful vikings taking home a celebration of a saint who suffered a gruesome martyrdom in order to remain a virgin and serve the poor is hardly credible to anyone who studies the northern traditions. It seems far more likely that the not-so-peaceful predecessors of the later vikings took the traditions that they celebrated at solstice with them when the invasions of Italy happened in the fifth century. It is likely that the similarities in a solstice festival of lights and already existed at that time.

The resemblance to feminine deities such as Nehalennia who was depicted with a ship, fruit and a horn as were others identified with the "Mothers" or matrones who were worshiped widely among both the Celts and Germanic groups with corresponding to Roman ancestral deities is also likely to provide another explanation for Lucia. The Disablot which was held at Winter Nights is identified as being similar to Mother's Night of Germanic customs. Even in Norway where the festival of lights is not celebrated, these deities were represented by volvas or "norns" at the birth of a child as "light mothers" who bore presents to the child and brought first light in the form of a candle to forsee its future. Eating the nornagreytur or norngroats, after birth is a custom that still survives in the Faroe Islands. The Romans had Juno Lucina or Lucetia, the Mother of Light who also carried a tray and a lamp, bestowing the gifts of light, enlightenment and sight, who as also known as the opener of the eyes of newborn children. Such wide-spread customs with similar observance would suggest customs of far greater antiquity then the emerging cult of Christianity could account for.

Regardless the festival itself is easier to document, at least in Sweden. In Halland, a lan, or province in Sweden there are records of an old festival that began on the eve of December 13. Young women there would go from one farm to the next carrying torches to light their way, bringing baked goods, stopping to visit a bit at each house and returning home by break of day. The custom of bringing coffee and food to the rest of the household on December 13 is thought to have begun in some of the richer farming districts of Sweden. The young women wore candles in crowns festooned with lingonberry leaves and candles, a custom that still persists although the crowns are now electric lights.

In the modern version of the Lucia parades, stjarngossar (star boys) join the procession. The star boys, several sources say, represent the young men who at one time went from door to door on this longest night, frightening people, singing songs and begging money. The parallels to other Northern European Yule festivals with mummers, masqueraders and parades of people going from house to house singing songs and begging money carrying torches, lamps or candles, while others entered and brought gifts makes it clear that the Festival of Lights has its roots in heathen antiquity.

Other Lucia customs link the festival more closely with Winter Nights as well as Yuletide. Threshing had to be finished by Lucia's Day. In order to do so, the threshing would go on all night and everyone would be given food and drink when finished. In Christian times it became the day for butchering the Christmas pig. Traditionally the butcher (formerly a godhi or head chieftain) would be given the lussesup (literally a cup of light) which was brandy or another similar drink. Since lusse means light the name Lucia seems to be far more understandable, and would probably be more accurate as Lucy, which she is also known as in Sweden. There is also a remarkable similarity between the lussesup and the bragarfull or holy cup that oaths were sworn on which were associated with the sonargolt or holy boar at Yule.

The Church did not always consider Lucy a saint. Because of correlations of the name with light, not only in the Old Norse but in Latin, Lucia was associated with Lucifer. In one classic tale she was said to have been the first wife of Adam and the mother of the vittra people who lived underground rather than Eve, who in a similar story was said to be the mother of the huldufolk). One account of the lussikatter (Lucy cats) or the golden saffron rolls that are served by Lucia is that they were devil's cats which she subdued, and the cats were pictured at her feet. the traditional shape of the rolls is a crossed shape where the arms are rolled inward and in the curve are bright pieces of fruit or small candles in the form of a solar wheel. The association of the cats also suggests an identity with Freya who was known as the Vanadis, or the shining bride of the gods.

Beginning Yuletide with lighting a candle and greeting Lucy, or the Queen of Light, would certainly be appropriate for modern heathen families who are seeking to re-establish the old customs and welcome the gods and goddesses of old back into their homes as well as ancestral spirits who accompany them on their rounds. Cleaning and decorating for the Yule festivities should be finished by Lucy Day. It would likewise seem to be a good idea to set out porridge or pudding for those who accompany her, or set an extra place for them at the table as well as welcoming Lucy when she comes bearing gifts.

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© 1995 by Susan Granquist. All rights reserved.
Irminsul Ęttir