On 13 December, the Swedish community, and an increasing number of Mallorcans will celebrate the day of Santa Lucia. For as long as I can remember, Santa Lucia has been a big part of my life.
Swedish people like me celebrate Lucia with singing and processions in schools, hospitals, and where we work. Each year, Swedish national TV broadcasts a huge Lucia procession.
Lucia Day dates back to the 4th century and commemorates Lucia of Syracuse, Sicily, who brought food to Christians hiding from the Romans in catacombs. She wore a wreath lit with candles to illuminate her path through the darkness. Lucia was martyred for this aged 20.
The procession commemorating Santa Lucia is led by a woman wearing white to symbolise purity, a red ribbon around her waist to suggest martyrdom, and a wreath of candles in her hair. (Nowadays there are usually electric, thankfully. When I was Lucia I wore real candles and ended up with wax all over my scalp!) She is trailed by her handmaidens, star boys and gingerbread men. Younger children may dress up as elves.
Lucia’s handmaidens wear glitter or a wreath without candles and, like her, a red ribbon around their waist. Star boys wear white, cone-shaped hats and sticks with stars on them.
On Lucia Day, we Swedes also eat lussebullar, buns made with beautiful bright yellow saffron.
From Sicily to Sweden
Lucia Day is probably the result of Christian missionaries coming to Sweden in the Middle Ages to convert us pagan Swedes.
Her day, 13 December, was the historic Julian calendar’s longest night of the year and already a long-established tradition rather like Halloween. According to Swedish folklore, it was especially dangerous, with dark, unclean spirits out in force.
As Darra Goldstein writes in Fire and Ice, her excellent book about Swedish cuisine and its origins, to keep the evil spirits at bay ‘young people roamed noisily from house to house, caroling and mumming [performing little skits] in exchange for symbolically shaped buns and other foods. Their commotions were also meant to rouse the sun, to awaken it from the year’s greatest darkness.’
Lucia’s name is also derived from the Latin for ‘light’.
As they did in so many other countries, Christian missionaries grafted the legend of Santa Lucia onto a more ancient ritual holiday to make it easier for us to embrace Christianity.
According to legend, an apparition of Santa Lucia appeared in Sweden in the 17th century to feed a part of the country suffering from famine.
The ancient connection with the celebration of the sun, in short supply in Sweden, probably explains the presence of bright yellow saffron in the lussebullar.
‘Lucia’s Cats’, with raisin eyes, are the most traditional of these.
Saffron came to Sweden as a result of Scandinavia’s significant place in the ancient spice trade. It was part of the northern ‘Silk Road’ that stretched from Russia to Jerusalem and Baghdad.
Hand-picked from the flowers of a certain kind of crocus, saffron was sufficiently expensive to make it a favourite of ostentatiously wealthy Swedes. This status made saffron precious enough to become part of the special celebration that is Lucia’s Day.
When I first came to Mallorca, I was surprised to discover that Spanish people put saffron into savoury food.
Why I love Lucia Day
As someone who grew up loving singing, I’ve been in many Lucia processions.
We began practicing for her day in September. It was a big part of the school year.
I still love to sing the traditional Lucia songs, as well as the more modern ones that have found their way into the procession such as ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen and ‘Viskar en bön’ by Broadway and West end star Peter Jöback.
To this day, I wear the necklace given to me by the Swedish Church after I was chosen to be Lucia in my local church. It was a big deal to me.
When I moved to Mallorca with my partner on 1 December 2011, not long before Lucia’s Day, I worried that there would be no celebration. After all, this was Mallorca.
To my absolute delight, I found out that the Swedish School performed a Lucia procession every year at Plaza Cort in Palma. At the time, The Swedish Church of Palma also arranged a Christmas market, and I remember buying very strong mulled wine (glögg) as well as lussebullar.
Over the years, the event has outgrown Plaza Cort as it has become more and more popular, not only in the Swedish community but also with Mallorcans.
This year the Swedish Lucia procession will take place in the Cathedral La Seu in Palma which rises above the old town. The event starts at 8pm. Be sure to come early to find a seat.