The St. Lucia Day Celebration in Scandinavia

An overview of this Christmastime holiday

Sleigh Ride in Norway
••• Sleigh Ride in Gudbrandsdalen, Norway. © T. Rakke/Innov. Norway

Each year on Dec. 13, Saint Lucia Day is celebrated widely throughout the Scandinavian countries, including Sweden, Norway and Finland. If you're unfamiliar with the origins of the holiday and how it's celebrated, get the facts with this review. Just as Christmastime celebrations unique to different regions are observed in countries throughout the world, St. Lucia Day festivities are unique to Scandinavia.

Who Was St. Lucia?

St. Lucia Day, also known as St. Lucy's Day, is held in honor of the woman said to have been one of the first Christian martyrs in history. Due to her religious faith, St. Lucia was martyred by the Romans in 304 CE. Today, St. Lucia Day plays a central role in Christmastime celebrations in Scandinavia. Globally, however, St. Lucia doesn't typically receive the recognition that other martyrs, such as Joan of Arc have. 

How Is the Holiday Celebrated?

St. Lucia Day is celebrated with candlelight and traditional candlelit processions, similar to the Luminarias procession in some parts of the Southwest United States. Scandinavians not only honor St. Lucia with a candlelit procession but also by dressing as her in commemoration.

For example, the eldest girl in the family portrays St. Lucia by putting on a white robe in the morning. She also wears a crown full of candles, because legend has it that St.

Lucia wore candles in her hair to allow her to hold food for Rome's persecuted Christians in her hands. Given this, the eldest daughters in families also serve their parents Lucia buns and coffee or mulled wine.

In church, women sing the traditional St. Lucia song which describes how St. Lucia overcame the darkness and found light.

Each of the Scandinavian countries has similar lyrics in their native tongues. So, both in church and in private households, girls and women have a special role in remembering the saint.

In Scandinavian history, the night of St. Lucia was known to be the longest night of the year (winter solstice), which was changed when the Gregorian calendar was reformed. Prior to their conversion to Christianity, the Norse observed the solstice with huge bonfires designed to ward off evil spirits, but when Christianity spread among the Nordic peoples (circa 1000), they, too, begin to commemorate the martyrdom of St. Lucia. Essentially, the festival has aspects of Christian customs and pagan customs alike. This isn't unusual. A number of holidays contain both pagan and Christian elements. This includes Christmas trees and Easter eggs, both pagan symbols incorporated into Christian traditions, and Halloween. 

Symbolism of the Holiday

The St. Lucia Day festival of light also has symbolic overtones. During a dark winter in Scandinavia, the idea of light overcoming darkness and the promise of returning sunlight has been welcomed by the locals for hundreds of years. The celebrations and processions on Saint Lucia Day are illuminated by thousands of candles.

As many say, it wouldn't be Christmas in Scandinavia without Saint Lucia Day.