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Lucia Day and lussenatta in Swedish folklore

Lucior in front of the photographer. Picture taken by Adolf Schmidt with studio in Karlstad, Värmland, between 1906 and 1912. Photo: Värmland Museum (CC BY-NC-SA)

Today is Lucia Day, when one of our most beautiful (and also most mysterious) traditions takes place. This ancient tradition was originally celebrated around the winter solstice when the night of Lucia was the longest and darkest night of the year.

Welcome is the message Lucia brings, about Christmas finally "coming to life", after the long "dark times" of late autumn. And she herself is beautiful to behold, as the embodied genius of Christmas.

So writes Hilding Celander in the book Nordic Christmas from 1928 about Lucia's arrival that night. This night was known as modernatten in Östergötland, and must have had great significance for the general public in the dark and cold north, as the night of St. Lucia marked the turning point. After this night, the sun began to "rise" again in the sky.

Now up to the vulture in dark times! With the flame of tar, Lucia goes forth in sorrow and suffering. - From poems Lucia (1898) by Erik Axel Karlfeldt

Much folklore is associated with this night and day, and the same features are found in both parts of Norway and Sweden. In his book, Hilding Celander writes: "In southern Sweden (Småland, Halland, and neighbouring parts of Västergötland), all kinds of magic is going on at that time, especially with running water."

Many strange things happened during this night. The mills stood still, the water turned to wine at midnight, the fermentation of the beer stopped, etc. Nor were people allowed to work, because then ho Lussi take revenge and shout down the chimney:

Not brewing, not baking, not have big fires!

Sometimes people talked about a troll, Lusse or Lusseper, which puts obstacles in people's way. In Halland, Lucia was referred to as "a sorceress or a creature associated with evil spirits" or as "a troll who did all sorts of evil". In Väster-Dalarna (Malung), Lucia was thought of as a dangerous creature in the form of a bird of prey. In my region in central Norrland, too, children were frightened by Lucia. Here Lucia was told of as the tribal mother of the "invisible ones" or "whites".

At the same time Lusse spheres, a family of spirits, around the country during this long night. In the Halland settlement of Veddige, says Hilding Celander, it was customary to save the last chick of each field, and give it as fodder to the horses of the Lussefärs family. Hilding describes this "family of spirits" as "a whole retinue of men and women on their horses, from whom it is not good to fall, either to man or beast."

As in Norway, Hilding writes how there is a clear folkymological identification of Lucifer (and his family) with the village Lusse-Fär (= färd). "But the notion itself is much older," Hilding notes, "as can be seen from its correspondence with the West Norwegian lussi-faeren, lussi-reidi or jole-reidi, a strange ancient legend"

It was during this night, especially in the western Swedish counties, that the Christmas pig (or lussigrisen, as it is called in Närke) was slaughtered. In the book Nordic Christmas it is believed that it was no coincidence that the slaughter took place on this particular night.

The Christmas Pig
910: Slaughter, knitting of pigs. Jösse hamlet, Mangskog parish, Bjurbäcken, Värmland. Photo: Nils Keyland / Nordic Museum

Nor is it a coincidence that this was done on the night appointed for the winter solstice, but something that once had a purpose, which this was. - The slaughter of the Christmas pig has also provided the material conditions for the Lusseottan feast. This was essentially a slaughter meal.

Now for the big question that is repeated year after year.

Is Lucia a Swedish tradition or not?

Of course it is. It is a dumb question. But of course that doesn't stop some government institution or progressive editorial writer from reminding you that Lucia was indeed an Italian saint and that the tradition is therefore as un-Swedish as it gets. Who knows, maybe Saint Lucia identified as a man too? That would be the nail in the coffin for the typical image of Lucia as a woman.

Eller som Nordiska museet proklamerade på Twitter att den ljusbärande Luciabruden i vitt ”blev vanlig först på 1950-talet”, vilket faktiskt inte stämmer. Traditionen var redan i början av 1800-talet välkänd i södra Sverige, som Hilding konstaterade 1928. Men han konstaterar samtidigt att Luciabruden mest sannolikt inte är någon ursprunglig folklig tradition i Sverige:

However, it is an open question whether the Lussebruden is an original folk custom. Outside the western Swedish regions, it can be stated with some certainty that it is not. The widespread use of the custom does not contradict this view, for it has demonstrably taken place towards or in our own time. And it is not always the original customs that become the most popular. The history of Christmas provides ample evidence of this; one need only mention Christmas presents and the Christmas tree. Instead, it is the most festive customs that have the greatest chance of catching on and catching on. And this Lucia is certainly one of them.

- Hilding Celander, Nordic Christmas (1928)

Lucia, lussenatten, modernatten, trollnatten, these are threads that run back in our Swedish history and our folklore as far as the written word remembers. Some aspects of the tradition are relatively recent, while others have their origins in the forgotten mists of antiquity. How long the traditions and customs existed before the written word, we cannot know. But if you ask me, the age of a tradition doesn't matter either.

We who live today can only decide which view we ourselves want to instill in the traditions. It is now our traditions, and what we feel for them is actually entirely up to us. It is when you find your own meaning and inject your own vitality into a tradition that you make it your own and keep it alive, and that is what the Swedish Allmoge has undoubtedly done. Over the centuries, we have made the celebration of Lucia our own tradition. No one can take that away from us, not even post-modern cultural radicals in the service of the state.

Many decades and centuries from now, when postmodernism, gender theory, intersectionality and all the names of these revolutionary and unjust currents have long since consigned themselves to the dustbin of history - when many of us alive today are long dead, buried and forgotten - the light-bearer will come, crown adornment the woman in white robes still brings light, hope and reflection to the Nordic winter night.

Our modern and at the same time very old Lucia celebration will soon be over, but the danger is not yet over, because as I said, later generations have changed the tradition a bit so that it no longer falls at its natural time. With today's calendar, the winter solstice occurs and modernatten this year on 21 December, on St Thomas' Day or St Thomas' Fair. So here's your chance to scare the children with the story of Lusse-Fär.

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