On the morning of December 13th most Swedish people, in one way or another, take part in a celebration of saint Lucy, or “sankta Lucia” as she’s called in Swedish. It may seem odd that a country that is known for being one of the most secular in the world*, where the vast majority of people that do identify as Christian are Lutherans, should celebrate a Catholic saint so much, but in the words of celebrated folklorist and doctor of ethnology Jan-Öjvind Swahn:
“[The Italian saint Lucy] is, when it comes right down to it, completely irrelevant with regards to the Scandinavian character of Lucia. She and the saint have nothing in common but the name and the day.”
Modern Swedish st Lucy celebration
The modern Lucia is a girl or woman, usually dressed in a long white gown, often with a red ribbon for a girdle and with a crown of candles on her head. She is followed or flanked by “tärnor” (an archaic word originally meaning “servant girl” or “maid”, but now only used for brudtärna ‘bridesmaid’ and for female participants in the Lucia procession), who are dressed in white gowns similar to the Lucia’s, but without the crown of candles. Then there are “stjärngossar” (apparently connected to something called “star singers”) dressed in the same white gowns, wearing conical white hats with stars on them, and wands with a star at the end in their hands. In kindergartens and schools the processions often also include tomtenissar/elves and gingerbread men.
Most celebrations have the above-described procession enter a room singing the Lucia song. The story of this song is too good to skip: the melody is from a traditional Neapolitan song called “Santa Lucia” that celebrates the picturesque waterfront district, Borgo Santa Lucia, in the Bay of Naples. Swedish composer Gunnar Wenner overheard the song in Italy, brought it to Sweden and re-wrote the lyrics to be about how a light will spring from the winter darkness. While I’m sure Wenner meant the myth of Jesus’ birth, the song does not once actually mention Jesus or god. Instead, it focuses on how the darkness of winter shall soon be gone. It starts with a description of how darkness surrounds the houses in winter and ends with the line: “the day shall once again rise out of a rosy sky”. That’s some straight up nature religiosity there!
There are a bunch of traditional songs sung at these celebrations, and most children will learn these through school growing up. When I was a kid my sisters and I would – in a typical mix of older and newer practices – get up in the morning on the 13th, dress up in Lucia gear, and wake up my parents with singing and some sweet bread: lussekatter (saffron flavoured buns, “lusse cats”) and gingerbread.
A tradition similar to the modern one was first recorded in the late 18th century in some upper-class homes in the province of Västergötland, but this type of Lucia didn’t become popular until the newspaper ‘Stockholms Dagblad’ arranged a Lucia procession through Stockholm. From there it spread around the country and later during the 20th century to other countries, and some Swedish Americans seem to have adopted the custom. In the modern tradition, there was an effort made to make a connection to the legend of the saint Lucy, and I remember being taught the legend in school growing up. It was a rather ghastly tale of blood and gore, brimming with historical inaccuracies, and painting roman pagans as horrible villains. In many ways, the attempt to (in their minds) reconnect to a “purer” form of the celebration ended up being a new invention to a large degree, rather than a continuation of an older practice.
Winter Solstice, Folklore and Folk Practices
The traditions surrounding the Lucia celebration before the 20th century have quite old roots. It seems the Julian calendar is to blame for December 13th being celebrated at all. The Julian calendar is 0.0078 days (or 11 minutes and 23.2 seconds) longer than the actual solar year. Over centuries this accumulated to days, then weeks. By the Middle Ages, the solstice had moved from December 25th to 13th, and thus started the association.
The night before the 13th thus came to be considered the longest night of the year (even when the solstice drifted further and continuing to be after the Gregorian calendar was adopted), and was called “lusse långnatt” (translating to something like “the long night of Lussi”) and lillejulafton (“little Christmas eve”, Christmas eve being when the celebrations occur in Sweden). It was considered a dangerous time, as times of transition often are, when spirits and powers would roam the darkness. The Wild Hunt was sometimes called “Lussi’s passage”, and she was thought to lead the chase. The length of the night was referenced by there ideally being served three, seven or even nine breakfasts, and they should include sweet foods and shots of alcohol.
The oldest practices associated with December 13th is in all likelihood the wearing of scary masks. An old word for this in Swedish is “skråpuk”, a combination of a word meaning “dry skin” and “demon” or “evil spirit” (puk, from the same root as “Puck” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Scary disguises have been used at several holidays throughout the year in Sweden, such as Shrove Tuseday, Easter and Walpurgis, but it seems especially to be associated with Yuletide. The Yule Goat was one of them, either from the same stock as Krampus or possibly connected to the goats pulling Thor’s wagon. There have even been “yule ghosts” and other frightful costumes.
Animal masks have been found in the Viking Age town of Haithabu/Hedeby, and there are mentions of Scandinavians in Byzantium (Varangians from the emperor’s guard) dancing while wearing animal skins and masks. It would therefore seem that these practices do stretch back into pre-Christian times.
We don’t have good descriptions of the exact appearances of the early masks and disguises used at lussi celebrations, however, there are later accounts of masks, soot-blackened faces, and men dressing in women’s clothing and vice versa – which at the time apparently was considered the high point of hillarity. There was sometimes a “lussebrud” (lusse-bride) and a “lussegubbe” (lusse-man); the earliest mentions of the lussebride says she was covered in straw held on by a straw belt and she had to dance with anyone who wanted to until all of the straw had fallen off. Later sources in other parts of Sweden tell of a black dress with white stars, or a white dress with black stars. Regardless though, being chosen to be “lussebride” was a dubious honour. Usually, a woman of “loose morals” was chosen, and not uncommonly she’d be someone that’d already had a child out of wedlock. There was a saying: “ Den som en gång varit Lussebrud, hon får aldrig någon brudeskrud.” This translates roughly to “she who once has been Lussebride will never wear a wedding gown”.
Lussi herself was often conflated with Lucifer on the basis of the similarities of their names, but she was too sometimes thought to be Adam’s first wife, and mother of all the invisible peoples of the folklore. Again, the vague similarities between Lilith and Lussi/Lucia may have had something to do with this, but that would hardly have been enough without firmly grounded beliefs about her divinity or magical powers.
Lastly, I remember having come across mentions that equate Lussi with Freyja/Fröja and Fröja’s role at this time. She is said to visit homes to see that they are ready for yuletide, and no sharp tools can be left outside during this night or she will dull the edges so that they can never be sharpened again. We’re also told that the last apples in a garden or on a farm should be left on the tree as an offering to Fröja. I was certain that I had read this in “Wärend och Wirdarne”, a 19th century ethnological investigation of parts of Småland in Sweden, but alas, I can’t find that mention now.
Other goddesses associated with Yule
I was really hoping to go more indepth into this subject, but as this article is already far longer than I had intended, and the subject more suited for a book than a blogpost, I will have to be far, far briefer than I’d like to be.
While the eddaic literature is focused mainly on the stories of the male deities, it’s obvious from both other textual and archeological evidence that their female counterparts were just as important a part of the religion at the time. Indeed, goddesses may have played a greater part in everyday life than the gods. The dísir were worshipped both as deities of childbirth, home and hearth, fertility as well as of fate and war. Many goddesses, such as Frigg and Freyja, are believed to have close association with spinning and other everyday chores that makes it likely that they were approached frequently.
In the 8th century the English monk Bede wrote that the Heathen Anglo-Saxons celebrated a holiday at or around the winter solstice known as Modraniht, Moders’ night or Night of the Mothers. This has been thought to be related to, or part of, the cult of the Matres and Matronae, known from altars carved with their images in continental Europe. It is also possible that it is in turn linked to the dísir and/or the Norns from Scandinavia, or that all these three are connected by common roots.
In the German speaking areas of Europe, there are many stories of a powerful female being. Under namns such as frau Holle, Holda, Perchta, Berchta and many others, she is thought to uphold morals among people, reward the hard-working and kind hearted and punish the lazy and rude. She often lives in a well, rides in a wagon and have much to do with spinning, weaving and the preparation of flax. And she strongly associations with the time around the winter solstice, specifically the Twelve days of Christmas. So strong is the connection that she almost always appear at this time and have been called a “Winter Goddess” by scholar Lotte Motz.
Like Fröja/Lusse above, frau Perchta is sometimes sad to visit homes before Yule to inspect the order of the household. She is also, like Holda, connected to the Wild Hunt, just like Lusse and Lussiferda, and Perchta is sometimes called “the Bride of the Sun”.
If we allow for the possible connection between Lussi and Freyja, there may be a further link to frau Holle through the elder bush. In modern Swedish the word for elder is “fläder”, but an older word is “hylle” and there’s a being in folklore called “hyllefroa” or “hyllefrun”, meaning “the elder lady”. While I can’t find any academic sources covering this, there seems to be a widely accepted idea that the elder is associated with Freyja, and from the similarities of stories it would seem hyllefrun and Freyja is one and the same. Frau Holle is also connected to the plant, and Gardenstone expounds on the connection between Holle and the elder in his book “Goddess Holle”.
My own story
Back in the 1990s when I first encountered modern Heathenry I became a member of a local group in Malmö, Scania. It’s so long ago that I can’t really remember that clearly, but I think it was the first winter as a member that I took part in a Lusseblot for the first time, though to be honest, I don’t remember if we called it that back then. The two guys leading the ceremony had built a “path” of candles from the front door to the stalli and from the stalli to the balcony door. We all gathered at the front door, lit our candles as we invited Lusse and then opened the door.
What happened when we opened the door was not what I had expected, because I “saw” the shape of a woman made up of white light standing there in the opening and how she entered the house. I say that I “saw”, because the vision was so vivid to me, but I didn’t see it with my eyes, but with my mind. She look stern. Not angry or mean or evil, not even dangerous as such, but stern. We lit the candles, one by one, and then we held the ceremony mostly by the stalli. Afterwards we lit the candles from the stalli to the balcony door, opened and she was gone. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life.
While this blót is always particularly meaningful to me, I haven’t had that strong an experience since then. I have continued to celebrate, though, and to attempt fit it into a theological model, if you will. To me, she is real, I have met her, but how does she fit into mythology and the greater Heathen world? The answer may be that it doesn’t, maybe it’s just one of those dispicable UPGs that is all the rage to hate on and that we should take no heed of. However, due to the long history of Lusse in folk traditions in Sweden, I think the practice is in line with the spiritual essence (for a lack of a better word) of Heathenry.
The way I have come to think of Lusse, she’s connected to Freyja or Frigg, maybe as a maiden or servant, but then that is just a mythological way of saying she is connected to them… But what is it that she does? Why does she come at this time? Since the tradition I’ve been brought up in is one that puts a lot of emphasis on the waiting for the days to stop getting shorter and start getting longer, and since most songs about Lusse seem to deal with that, it seems reasonable to understand her as bringing the light of the new year, somehow. To my mind, this is connected to what is told in Vafþrúðnismál of Sunna during Ragnarök. She is eaten by the wolf Skoll but before that she has given birth to a daughter that takes the reins of her horses and drives the chariot of the sun instead of her. In a circular understanding of time and the world, the winter solstice is connected to this moment and by celebrating it we celebrate the ever-renewing cycle of life. In that Lusse comes as the harbinger of the new sun, the new Sunna. She is the midwife, helping Sunna birth her daughter, herself, into the new year. And that is why I celebrate the Lusseblot.
*The second most secular country, after China, with more than 3 out of 4 selfidentifying as atheist or non-religious according to a 2015 Washington Post article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/04/14/map-these-are-the-worlds-least-religious-countries/