If you're up on your saints' feast days (or your John Donne), you will know that tonight (Dec 12, actually) is the Eve of St. Lucy, or Lucia, the festival of lights celebrated in Sweden on December 13.
Lucia was born in Syracuse in 300 AD and was probably a victim of the wave of persecution of Christians during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. According to legend, she carried food to Christians hiding in underground tunnels, wearing a wreath of candles on her head to light the way. When a rejected suitor had her arrested, she was supposedly saved by divine intervention from a life of prostitution and then death by fire, but was eventually killed by the sword.
In the Middle Ages, St. Lucy's Day was a popular festival in many parts of Europe. Before the 16th-century Gregorian calendar reform, the feast day coincided with the winter solstice. Since December 13 was the shortest day of the year, Lucia was said to bring light and longer days.
Today, Lucia is celebrated on many different levels in Sweden, from the televised Lucia wearing candles in her hair to the thousands of Lucia processions held in daycare centers and schools around the country.
In schools, Lucia is normally marked with a morning procession led by a girl dressed as Lucia wearing a white robe and a red sash around her waist. She is followed by a train of white-gowned girls and "star boys" wearing dunce caps singing Lucia and Christmas songs. The retinue may also include various gingerbread people and gnomes. The pageant is generally followed by a spread of saffron buns, gingersnaps and coffee.
This year's Lucia celebrations have created a buzz in the Swedish media. Earlier in the week, news about a ban on gingerbread men, gingerbread cookies and gingerbread-themed songs (possibly for fear of racial connotations) at a school in Laxå spread like wildfire on social media. The school has since reversed the ban, it seems.
Lucia celebrations are quintessentially Swedish, but highly religious in nature. And the Swedish Education Act states that Swedish schools should be non-religious.
Why then, given the recent public debate about holding school closing ceremonies in churches – and celebrating Advent in schools – is no one protesting the tradition of sending children to school dressed as Catholic martyrs?
Do-it-yourself Lucia paper doll