At 6:15 in the morning of December 13, the parking lot of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is jammed, the castlelike structure clouded in the cars’ vapors. Tickets are sold out as the dark mansion on Park Avenue fills up with Swedish Americans ready to celebrate Santa Lucia Day.
Why are Swedes celebrating a Sicilian saint and singing the Swedish translation of a Neapolitan song? One story tells of a white-robed woman wearing a crown of candles and carrying food to starving Swedes in Värmland. Another tells how sailors at sea found their way home to Sweden thanks to a vision of a beautiful woman with a halo of light, who was St. Lucy (Lucia means lux, or light, in Latin).
The fair Lucia hailed from fourth-century Syracuse and was promised to a wealthy man, whom she despised. To avoid marriage to a cruel pagan, she gave away her dowry, but her fiance denounced her as a Christian to the mayor of the town. Her eyes were plucked out, and, as the legend goes, God gave her a pair of even more beautiful eyes. The church canonized her as the patron saint of light and eyesight, and Lucia is often painted with her eyes on a platter as a sign of her martyrdom.
On December 13, the dark days are beginning in Scandinavia, so this festival of lights marks the beginning of the Christmas season and time to get baking. The eldest daughter dresses as Lucia in a white gown and a crown of four candles and brings lussekatter (Lucia saffron buns), usually in an S shape, to her sleeping parents. At the American Swedish Institute, she is followed by “star boys” in long, white cone hats and jultomten (julenisse in Norwegian), who are Christmas pixies.
“Don’t forget to turn your lights on!” they tell each other as they switch on the battery-powered bulbs (rather than real candles) in the crowded wooden mansion. The lit wants of the star boys become swords, and one of them knocks out a ceiling tile. Never mind, though, because all eyes are on Lucia.
After the procession, the early morning crowd indulges in lussekatter, pepparkakor (spicy ginger snaps), and strong Swedish coffee—just in time to go back to bed.
Excerpt from Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, by Eric Dregni. Get it at 30% off in our holiday sale.
“While reading Vikings in the Attic, I solved two family mysteries and added at least ten new jokes to my act.”