Sankta Lucia: The Survival of a Nordic Sun Goddess

Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year, December 13. This is the feast day of Sankta Lucia, the patron saint of Sweden.Until the Pope Gregory XII made the Gregorian calendar official in AD 1582, the winter solstice fell on December 13-Lucia’s feast day. Lucia (Lucy) was actually an Italian, she is celebrated in certain parts of Italy, but she is most associated with the Nordic countries.

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As I write this, a fresh batch of Lussekatter is baking in my oven, smells of saffron and cardamom waft through my house, and fresh snow piles up outside my windows (Try not to be too jealous)

Now you may be wondering, what in the name of Thor is an Italian saint doing as the patron saint of Sweden? I’ll get to that, but first let me tell you the story of St.Lucia as we know it today.

img_5164Saint Lucia was born in Sicily in the third century AD to a Christian family. During this time the Romans were still persecuting Christians as troublemakers and cannibals. When Lucia’s father died, she vowed to remain unmarried and to serve god. However, she had already been betrothed to a non-Christian. Lucia refused the marriage and proceeded to give her dowry to Christians who were in hiding. Legend says she brought food down into the catacombs where Christians were hiding, led only by candles which she had placed in a crown around her head. In response, her would- be suitor reported her to the authorities and had her tried and convicted as a Christian. The judge decided to have her sold into slavery as punishment. When the guards came to take her away, however, they were unable to move her. They decided to kill her on the spot, so they poured oil on her and tried to light her on fire. But she would not burn. They finally decided to stab her with a sword, which seemed to have done the trick. This all supposedly happened on December 13, AD 304. She was a made a saint because of her faithfulness to god and the seeming miracles that saved her from being sold into slavery and from the fire (use a sword, always use a sword).

No one knows for sure who brought the story of Lucia to Sweden but once it was there it took off. One story about the origin of Lucia in Sweden, dates back to the Middle Ages. The Swedish province of Varmland was having a terrible famine and the people were starving. On the longest night of the year (which happened to be December 13), a light suddenly appeared on Lake Vanern. It came from a large white boat, at the helm was a beautiful woman in a white gown wearing a crown of lights. The ship was filled with food and once it was unloaded it disappeared. Saint Lucia had come to rescue Varmland!

In the modern tradition, the eldest daughter wakes up early in the wee hours of the morning and makes kaffe (coffee) and Lussekatter (saffron rolls). She then dons a white robe with a red sash, puts a crown of candles in her hair, and wakes up the family with fresh coffee and rolls all the while singing. Miracles are known to happen on this day and it’s not uncommon for animals to talk!

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Lucia’s association with light and the solstice is what most scholars believe made her such a hit in Scandinavia. In the deep winter, Northern countries may only see hours of sunlight during the day. The winter solstice would have been a time of celebration as it would have marked the halfway point of winter and signaled the return of lighter days. In an agrarian society, the importance of this can’t possibly be over stressed.

In Pre-Christian Scandinavia, the sun was represented as a solar goddess-Sol or Sunna. She is the sister of the moon and drives the chariot of the sun across the sky every day. Pulled by Allsvinn (very fast) and Arvak (early rising), the chariot is pursued by the wolf Skoll. Who sometimes comes so close that he is able to take a bit out the sun, causing an eclipse. Sunna would have been hugely important during this time of the year and Yule celebrations most surely would have honored her. It is pretty generally accepted that the feast day of  St Lucia and the winter solstice are closely related. It is not too much further of a stretch to see the correlation between Lucia and Sunna, as this is a common theme among catholic saints.

As a modern pagan with a strong Swedish background, I have fully accepted the connection between Lucia and Sunna. This was one of my favorite holidays as a child and one that my family always placed a big emphasis on it. It was no surprise to me, years later, when as a pagan I found out the connection between St Lucia and pagan traditions. It fills my heart with joy to think about the fact that my family is still carrying on this tradition and that my siblings and I will be passing it onto the next.

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Yours truly as Lucia, probably around age seven. Note the stuffed cheeks and half eaten bun hidden under the tray 😉

If you would like to honor Lucia/Sunna this December 13 here are some ways to do it!

-make Lucia Buns, serve them to friends, family, or even bring them to work!

– Sing this version of the traditional Lucia, ‘reheathenized’

-Meditate on the importance of light and the sun, take this time to focus on staying positive even during dark times.

 

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. I’m very curious to know your thoughts on the traditional solstice (& other days such as Samhain etc) versus the Gregorian date versus modern astrological/astronomical dating with our being able to measure the exact day of shortest light very specifically.

    The first time I thought about this was when I heard someone say that with the shift in our position relative to the stars that Samhain and the thinning kf the veil is actually closer to Thanksgiving than Halloween now??

    I am not as well versed as you at all, but as a relative newbie, it is somewhat perplexing and very mildly distressing that I’m never quite sure when to do ceremony or celebration! It’s probably the perfectionist in me that needs to KNOW if I’m doing it right, haha.

    Might be too much to reply to in a comment, but I’d be fascinated to know your opinion with all of your background knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lumi!

      Wow, such a great question! Thanks for posting it. I have thought about this many times myself.
      Here are my thoughts:

      1. Yes, our ancestors would have celebrated based on astrological alignments. Most agrarian societies would have adjusted the time of celebration based on what was happening with the harvest, solar alignments, and other factors. However, as a non-agrarian society (obviously many people still are), this same logic doesn’t always make sense for us.

      2.Traditional solstice days would have been the same as the astronomical dates. The big mix up comes when we have the split from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Before this date, most holidays overlapped with the actual dates of the major astronomical alignments. Just like in this post for example, Lucia Day was probably chosen to be on December 13 for the specific reason that it would overlap with the solstice. Essentially giving the people a Christian/Catholic reason to continue celebrating on the same days and make for a relatively smooth (ish) transition from paganism to monotheism.

      3.Despite all of this, I also think that there is power in collective memory and experience. What I mean by this statement is that even over the brief (relative to the age of the earth and the human species) time that we have been celebrating Samhain, for example, on October 31, millions of people think about and focus their energy on this day. This collective energy pools up and makes the day special, regardless of its alignment.

      4.I usually take the opportunity to do something on both the calendar date and the astronomical date. This past Samhain, I led my group’s ritual as close to October 31 as actually possible and celebrated. When November 7 came around (the astronomical date), I took the day to quietly contemplate and do some spellwork I had been planning.

      5.I think the best way to look at it is this: For celebrating, feasting, and spending time together-the calendar date seems to work best for me. For spellwork, trancework, or spirit work- the astronomical date seems to be the most powerful from my experience.

      I hope this helps!! Thanks again for such a great question!
      -Julia

      Like

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