December 13, 2012

Sancta Lucia: Swedish Christmas Tradition with Italian Roots



In 2004 my husband Monte, a Swedish friend Roy, and visited the Church of the Savior in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to attend a Sancta Lucia celebration. My heritage is one-fourth Swedish—my paternal grandmother, Ida Victoria Berg Cornell, was a Swedish immigrant.ST LUCIA ORNAMENT OVAL

Before reading about Sancta Lucia try to answer the following questions about the December 13th Swedish celebration:

  • The Sancta Lucia celebration is rooted in what country?
  • Lucia was born into a poor peasant family in Sweden. T F
  • Lucia married into a Pagan family. T F
  • The Sancta Lucia celebration isn’t a major Christian event in Sweden. T F
  • Found guilty of treason, Lucia was sentenced to a life of servitude and _______________.
  • Lucia remained a virgin in the tradition of St. Agatha. T F
  • At _____ a. m. On December 13th the (youngest – oldest) daughter in a household, places a wreath containing lit candles on her head, awakens her family members, and serves them Lucia buns.

December 13 is Sancta Lucia Day in Sweden. Its roots—both sacred and secular—can be traced through Swedish history and medieval custom to the 4th century martyrdom of a Sicilian virgin named Lucia.
For the ceremony, the eldest daughter of a household rises in the wee morning hours and dons a white dress (for purity) with a red tie (for martyred blood). In the kitchen she fills trays with Lucia buns (saffron cookies), ginger cookies and glogg (all representing deliverance from hunger). At two a. m. she places a wreath made from

lingonberry or holly greens on her head. Candles woven into the wreathe light her way, freeing her hands to serve the family members she awakens.
The ritual reenacts and commemorates Lucia, who defied Emperor Diocletian’s laws banning Christianity by feeding the poor and serving God. She died on December 13, 1700 years ago.
Born into the rich nobility of Syracuse, Sicily, Lucia’s father died when she was very young. As a teenager her mother was severely ill, to death’s door. Desperation motivated them to seek a miracle at St. Agatha’s tomb. The journey succeeded. Lucia’s mother, healed, embraced Lucia’s faith and Lucia began taking food to persecuted Christians hiding in caves, lighting her way with candles set in a wreathe on her head.
Lucia’s father had arrangement for her marriage into a Pagan family, increasing her danger. She rebuffed her betrothed’s hand, spurning marriage and worldly goods and vowing to remain a virgin in St. Agatha’s tradition. Her enraged suitor reported her to the authorities.
Lucia, found guilty of treason, was sentenced to a life of servitude and prostitution in a brothel.


They threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her and lit it, but she would not stop speaking, insisting that her death would lessen the fear of it for other Christians and bring grief to non-believers.

One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop these denouncements but it had no effect on her. Unable to move her or burn her, a guard took out her eyes. Various paintings of her show her holding a plate with her eyes on them. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. St Lucy was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrament. In another story, St. Lucy was working to help Christians hiding in the catacombs during the terror under Rome and in order to bring with her as many supplies as possible, she needed to have both hands free. She solved this problem by attaching candles to a wreath on her head.


Missionaries later took Lucia’s story of courage to Sweden. When they needed to replace the Pagan Winter Solstice celebration on Dec. 13, a Sankta Lucia celebration was a natural choice. Even after the calendar was reformed and Winter Solstice fell on a later day, the thirteenth of December remained the celebration of St. Lucia.

Lucia became known as the queen of light. Dec. 13 (on the ancient calendar) was the longest night of the year and a time when man and beast need extra nourishment. During the darkest time of the year, Lucia is believed to lead the way for the sun to bring longer days, bringing a message of lighter times to come.

The Sancta Lucia celebration in Cleveland Heights mimicked the four-hundred year old practice in Sweden. The impressive service marked the official beginning of the Christmas season for Swedish residents.
Below are the lyrics of the song Sankta Lucia, first in Swedish, then in English:DSCF3207E

 Swedish text
Natten går tunga fjätt, runt gård och stuva
Kring jord som soln förlätt, skuggorna ruva
Då i vårt mörka hus, stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia

Natten är stor och stum, ny hör det svingar
I alla tysta rum, sus som av vingar
Se, på vår tröskel står, vitklädd, med ljus i hår
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia

Mörkret skall flykta snart ur jordens dalar
Så hon ett underbart ord till oss talar
Dagen skall åter ny stiga ur rosig sky
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia

English translation of the Swedish text:
Night time walks heavily, ‘round farm and cottage
On earth that sun forgot, shadows are falling
Our dark house then grows bright, she comes with candle light
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia

Though night is vast and still, hear now a new sound
In all the silent rooms, like wings are rustling
At door and dressed in white, with crown of candle light
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia

Darkness will soon take flight, from all the earth
These words she speaks to us, wonderful tidings
Daytime will come again, rise in a rosy sky
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia*


Swedish National Flag Day: June 6, 2012

Two Christmas Traditions: A Christmas Pickle and the Belsnickle

Sancta Lucia Part I: Background



  1. […] SWEDISH CHRISTMAS TRADITION WITH ITALIAN ROOTS I am of German, Czecz and Norwegian ancestry, but have always identified more with the Scandinavian […]

    Pingback by Sancta Lucia Part I: Background « Beanery Online Literary Magazine — December 13, 2012 @ 4:23 am | Reply

  2. Even in Alaska, Santa Lucia was remembered in my childhood by the Scandanavians who had migrated there.

    Comment by Barbee Hodgkins — December 13, 2012 @ 6:27 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

What is your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: