Yesterday was Dec. 13th, also known as Santa Lucia here in Sweden. It is a festival of lights, of sorts, and a real cozy experience if you have the chance to check it out.
For being exceedingly non-religious, most Swedish holidays still do link back to the church. And St. Lucia is one of the few for which many an average Swede can tell you a little bit about why you celebrate this day (compared to, say, the Pentecost, which tends to get a lot of blank stares but is also on the list of Swedish holidays)
Lucia is an Italian saint, but Sweden has adopted her and has taken good care of her. The story, according to some, goes that Lucia took a vow of chastity – and due to her unwillingness to marry a whole series of unfortunate events ensued – ending with her torture and her ability to withstand an enormous amount of pain before her death.
But the story has really very little to do with the celebration of this day in Sweden. See, Lucia is the only time the Swedes have anything slightly resembling a beauty contest on a large scale. Girls in each town compete for several weeks to be crowned St. Lucia. The runners up are her 'followers' and the girls parade through the town singing Lucia and Christmas songs. As in the US, there is a pretext to make this about other things than beauty – singing ability, charity, or just pure popularity are some of the common guises. But in the end, despite her Italian origins, Lucia is often portrayed as a nice Swedish blonde girl of about 17. To distinguish her from her lower ranked cohorts, she wears a red sash and a crown of candles (often electric) on her head.
But there is something warm and comforting about sitting in the Swedish darkness, listening to a bunch of kids sing by candlelight.