In the Bleak Midwinter

Seeking Lucia Amid Newtown

Little Girl Candlelight“Christmas is for children.”

We learn this when little, as we meet the dual figures of the Christ child and Santa Claus: gift givers who “love the little children,” as the Christian song of nursery and Sunday school days tells us of the former, while we sit on the lap of the latter to have our photo taken while sharing our wide-eyed wishes. Holiday music, colored lights, reindeer, snowmen, secrets and surprises and bright wrappings, and food that’s rationed or unavailable at other times – all the material that surrounds Christmas speaks to childhood wonder and desire, the eager questing of innocence in a rich and magical world.

It does not always speak to experience.

A friend and I met for coffee the week after Thanksgiving. Already soundtracked by holiday favorites on the radio, she told me how much she disliked the destitution and poor self-image of the Little Drummer Boy. But this was nothing compared to her visceral reaction to “fall on your knees” in “O, Holy Night” – as heard by a woman who had been repeatedly sexually abused by her father in childhood.

A magical world is not necessarily a benign one.

Our ancestors knew this, as the darkness of winter fell upon them. Many of the customs the Western world has incorporated into its Christmas traditions derive from human efforts to combat a time haunted by spirits of the dead, bitter cold, despair, illness, and hunger. The Christian church, by locating the birth of Jesus in the bleakness of winter, was reinforcing its message that the true light and hope for human relief in a dangerous world resided in a power beyond anything earthly: the initial coming and eventual return of the resurrected Son of God.

Western culture for the most part has shunned the season’s darker character, diverting it into individualistic, isolated, manageable spaces. Though we still realize that cold and gloom have their perils, we package them as affecting only select populations: the elderly, the homeless, the poor. Many may fall prey to perfectionism, overextended finances, gluttony, and status competition over the holidays, but most accept these cheerily, even defiantly, as part of a “season of giving” – one when, for children especially, we devote ourselves to the joyous aspects of Yuletide.

Family with CandlesBut the darkness remains.

This Christmas, the light of candles glows in a tearful remembrance and effort to grope through our dark night of the soul. For in this season for children, 20 from Newtown, Connecticut, will not joyously greet the wonders of snowfall and gifts and celebrations. For their families, the pain is immeasurable; the season of light will forever bear the mark of darkness.

For the rest of us, clear sight and understanding seem likewise far away, even as we struggle to find ways to prevent such tragedy from happening again.

Before the agony of the Friday, December 14 Newtown massacre of children and dedicated caretakers, I had planned to write on the Swedish celebration of LuciadagenSt. Lucy’s Day. Celebrated on December 13, it is one of the few “saint” days steadfastly observed by a Protestant country, and Sweden retains the public and family customs, though it has become more limited to schools and churches in Norway and Denmark. Lucia processions engage children into their teens and celebrate light and warmth, significantly linked to the family coziness of “hearth and home.”

Lucia and Tärnor

Lucia and her Tärnor at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia

I had attended the American Swedish Historical Museum‘s Lucia Fest the preceding weekend, and I was wondering how to fit in writing about the tradition with the trip I was making Friday afternoon to spend a weekend with my 16-year-old American goddaughter, her younger brother, and her parents. My browsing for news on Sweden’s celebrations this year was interrupted by breaking news in my own country, as far north from me as I was about to travel south. All thought of Lucia fled – as, indeed, did thought of much other than how much I wanted to head out to see my goddaughter.

Since then, facing the families’ grief and our own confusion and frustration, it has been hard to find a way back into speech. Words fail to articulate the colliding feelings the Newtown tragedy has raised in us: terror, determination, despair, anguish, and – overriding all else – uncertainty. We are confronted with not knowing the workings of Adam Lanza’s mind; with wondering whether stricter laws and better mental health care could have prevented this act; with a wish to do something but a dread that what we do may not solve the growing number of mass killings.

Most of all, we ask why this keeps happening. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Jokela, Utøya, Aurora, Newtown – what are we missing that these were possible?

A week later, I find myself back with St. Lucy: patron of blindness, whose name means “light” even while the truth of her own life remains dark.

She seems an appropriate saint just now.


First in procession are the smallest, the Tomtar.

Legends abound about St. Lucy, as speculation does when knowledge is lacking. All that is known is that she lived in Sicily in the fourth century, and she died – apparently, in the Diocletian persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. The stories center on her refusal to give up her virginity, even in marriage, and present a gruesome panoply of possible tortures that eventuated in her death: burning, stabbing, having her eyes gouged out (for which she is depicted sometimes as bearing her eyes on a plate), beheading.

That an Italian saint whose name means “light” gained a foothold in Scandinavian countries, with their longer periods of winter darkness, makes a certain sense; and the existence of the pagan tradition of the Lussi – a female demonic presence with a train of supernatural beings who wandered in the night, posing a particular threat to children who had misbehaved – doubtless offered Christian missionaries a golden opportunity to co-opt for Lucy the heathen Lussinatta, “Lussi Night,” which fell on what was considered in the old calendar to be the longest day of the year, December 13. The Reformation does not appear to have attempted to dislodge the Catholic saint, and some have pointed out a similarity between Lucia and the German tradition of the Christkind, or Christmas angel. Nevertheless, the domestic tradition with the white attire and sedate, spiritual procession of Lucia and her attendants took time to develop, not appearing in records until the mid-1700s.


Pepparkaksgubbar, the gingerbread people, bring sweetness.

The simplest form of the procession, in Swedish homes, features the eldest daughter donning white robes and a crown of greens and lit candles (usually battery-operated now) to bring coffee and lussekatter – saffron buns decorated with raisins – to her parents. Her brothers and sisters accompany her, likewise dressed in white and singing, with the girls carrying candles and the boys carrying stars and wearing pointed hats in their role as stjärngossar (star boys). At its root, Luciadagen is a family tradition, and so it engages everyone – whether performed in the school, the workplace, the church, or an arena.

At the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia, the Lucia for the afternoon was the latest in a long line of Lucias in her family, and likely some of the younger children had parents who had performed a variety of roles in the procession in their childhoods. Along the lines of the larger public displays that developed in Sweden in the 20th century, the Philadelphia Lucia Fest first featured the youngest children as tomtar, dwarflike folkloric farm helpers who were to be rewarded with treats at Christmas. These were followed by the next eldest acting as pepparkaksgubbar, “gingerbread people,” and then by girls around 8 to 10 years old performing folk dances.


The Stjärngossar playfully add their unique light.

Next came the stjärngossar, grinning cheekily in their pointed hats and bearing stars on poles. After they had performed their pieces, the hall went dark; the sound of young women’s voices in song grew nearer; and lights began to appear along the staircases. Thus arrived Lucia’s handmaids, the tärnor, young adolescent women solemnly carrying their candles and singing Sankta Lucia as they descended into the hall.

And into their midst came the Lucia Bride, bringing the warmth of food and light. Around her, all were singing:

Trollsejd och mörkermakt ljust du betvingar,
signade lågors vakt skydd åt oss bringar.
Drömmar med vingesus under oss sia,
tänd dina vita ljus, Sankta Lucia!

Lightly you overcome trolls and dark powers,
Guarded with flames you protect us and ours.
Give to us dreams with wings that may fly truly,
Light your wreath of white candles, for us, Saint Lucy.*

While the song with its Swedish words sounded beautiful, I found it quaint, folkloric – a relic of a superstitious time when people feared mythical creatures and worried over the harshness of life. It seemed appropriate to a cozy, home-oriented tradition, where family security would belie any real threat.


The arrival of the Tärnor brings light in darkness.

The Lucia procession performed at our museum here in Philadelphia – at the heart of what, in the 1600s, was “New Sweden” to the first wave of Swedish immigrants – is a valued and living tradition for the participants and families. But it is exactly that – tradition. In today’s knowing world, we largely treasure such celebrations for the warm memories they evoke and the connection they provide to our forebears. They speak to us of an intimate, manageable history, rather than of active battles between light and darkness, good and evil, confusion and clarity, ignorance and knowledge.

Certainly, we don’t associate ourselves with those who transitioned from Lussi Night observations to Lucy Day celebrations – the original Scandinavian practitioners of Lucia activities, working their way from a pagan pantheon that had spoken their experience into the new religion of Christianity, promising hope for a future reign of peace on earth and in heaven. But today, we don’t struggle with changes in worldview, seasonal despair, sudden threats from the outside that challenge our sense of security – do we?

When I attended Lucia Fest, I felt delight, but I never thought to find contemporary relevance in it.

Then the dark powers returned.

We will struggle with how to approach the shootings in Newtown, even as our ancestors struggled with new philosophies and orders to their existence. Long overdue, active discussion has begun about legal approaches to managing gun ownership, restricting certain types of ammunition, reviewing purchase and licensing procedures and background checks. Poignant conversation, often very difficult, is also beginning on issues of mental health. Can we continue simply to classify people as “mentally unstable,” dodging the challenge of how we might intervene to prevent violence in extreme cases? Are we able to admit how much in that darkness we do not know, do not understand – and head into exploring it with but little light?

LuciaLuciadagen, like many traditions of the season, resonates through the murk of confusion in defiance of darkness as a state we must reside in. For Christians, it speaks to the challenges of compassion and the work of God’s kingdom in daily life on earth. For agnostics and non-believers, it reminds us that the past, too, was not an easy, straight line of progress, contrary to secular mythology. No one promised we would live in the renaissance or golden age; sometimes, you land in between.

In contemporary practice in Sweden, Luciadagen is growing increasingly entwined with sociopolitical issues. The Local, Sweden’s news in English, may describe the choice of the Lucia as something “girls have pretty much got … wrapped up” – even as Sweden’s official cultural Web site asserts that “any child can be chosen as Lucia” – but recent history belies both the casual assumption of female totalitarianism and the virtuous government-backed assertion of equality. A writer to Aftonbladet in 2008 reported that her six-year-old son’s school couldn’t guarantee his safety if he were to be chosen as Lucia for the school procession, and in the same year, other male students faced harassment and school deprivation of the title. Beyond the gender issues, this year saw Lucia employed in protest of a bypass at Stockholm.

Instead of hiding her light under a barrel, maybe we can face St. Lucy with our blindness to ready solutions and reflect on her fight with the darkness. For above all else, the message of the season is one of hope – illumination, the promise of childhood, and a glimpse of a better future.

That we won’t have it all neatly solved by the new year shouldn’t keep us from considering the truth of that message.

*My translation, directed toward being more like the song than a literal rendering.