St Lucia’s Day in Sweden: Bringing Light in the Winter Darkness

St Lucia’s Day in Sweden: Bringing Light in the Winter Darkness

Luciadagen, or St. Lucia’s Day,  is a special day in Sweden that is celebrated annually on December 13th. Also known as the Festival of Lights, St. Lucia’s Day occurs one week after St. Nikolaus’ Day. It is a wonderful tradition that is meant to bring light into the darkness of the long Scandinavian winter.

On St. Lucia’s day you will see thousands of young girls emerge from the darkness of a Swedish winters day and gently silence the crowds with a procession of light. Dressed as Lucia’s maidens, in flowing white gowns, each girl holds a candle and wears a wreath of glowing candles in her hair. Children solemnly proceed through cities, towns and churches, giving out saffron buns and singing Lucia’s beautiful melodies, dressed as gingerbread men, elves and stjärngossar.

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In Sweden, the winter solstice was formerly observed on December 13th (in accordance with the old Julian calendar). The date marked a pagan festival of lights in honor of the shortest and darkest day of the year–a time when it was believed that demons and spirits would plague the earth and animals could talk (not unlike early celebrations of Halloween). The threshing and slaughtering were expected to be done, as people braced themselves for the start of winter.

With time and the spread of Christianity, however, the Swedish winter solstice became enmeshed with the figure of Saint Lucia, and December 13th became a celebration in her honor–complete with costumes, music, processions, and glogg. 

Several legends exist to explain Saint Lucia’s martyrdom. In one version of events, young Lucia would sneak away during the night to bring food to starving Christians hidden in the catacombs of Rome. Traveling the dark tunnels, she placed candles in a wreath around her head, so she might carry as much food as possible to those starving underground. Eventually she was discovered and was put to death.

Swedish lore builds on the story of her death, telling the tale of a winter that brought terrible famine to Sweden. On the dark, bitter night of December 13th, a ship approached across Lake Vannern. The starving Swedes gathered on the shore to watch the ship approach and saw in the distance a woman dressed in white, standing at the helm, the light of the ship encircling her head with a gentle glow. Familiar with the Italian lore of Saint Lucia delivering food to the destitute Christians, the villagers believed she had come to rescue them from certain death.

The modern tradition of observance began in the 1700s and involves the eldest daughter in a family dressing up as a Lucia in a white dress with a red sash, and wearing a wreath of candles on her head (today, electric candles are often used). The Lucia’s crown is made with lingonberry branches, which are evergreen. The crown, together with the candlelight it carries, symbolizes the celebration of light in darkness, enduring through the long winter’s night.

The Lucia is accompanied by handmaidens, who each carry a candle, and star boys, who wear pointed paper hats and carry stars. The processions of the Lucia, handmaidens, and star boys typically end with a rendition of Santa Lucia (several Swedish variations exist of the Neapolitan tune), and often the Tipp Tapp song. Prior to the 1700s, when the Swedish population was still quite rural and agrarian, celebrations were far less formal. Children dressed up and went door to door singing, and receiving snacks and snaps in exchange.

Each year, Lucias are chosen in schools, offices, and towns–there is even a national Lucia chosen to be drawn around in carriage, visiting hospitals and senior homes. Though the holiday is most closely associated with Sweden, it is also celebrated in parts of Denmark, Norway, Finland, Bosnia, and Croatia. Some believe Lucia travels by donkey distributing presents, and children will leave a sandwich for the two travelers, just as many children across the world leave cookies and milk for Santa. To accompany celebrations, lussekats (a sweet saffron bun) are eaten in the morning, while in the evening, ginger biscuits accompanied by the mulled wine glögg.

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In the video below, you can hear the song that is traditionally sung during St. Lucia processions throughout Sweden. It is extraordinarily beautiful.

This St. Lucia’s Day may you and your family be both bearers and witnesses of light within the darkness. God Jul!

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Swinging kilts and flying saltires for St Andrew’s Day in Scotland

Swinging kilts and flying saltires for St Andrew’s Day in Scotland

Every year on November 30th Scotland celebrates its national holiday. St Andrew’s Day (or in Scottish Gaelic ‘Là Naomh Anndrais’) not only celebrates the country’s patron saint but it is also a day filled with traditional Scottish food, music, poems, and dance.

According to legend a monk named Regulus brought relics of St Andrew to Scotland where he was given land to build a church by a Pictish king. The settlement grew into the town of St Andrew’s, where the cathedral in Kinrymount, Fife, became an important place of pilgrimage and the university, the oldest in Scotland, was founded in 1413.

The Scottish flag, the Saltire, is steeped in history and legend and is thought to be the oldest national flag in Europe. The saltire is based on the X-shaped cross on which St Andrew was crucified on November 30, 60 AD. An ancient story tells that a St Andrew’s Cross was seen in the sky by the Pictish King Angus MacFergus on the morning of a crucial battle in 832 AD between the Picts and the Angles. The Picts were inspired by the symbol and were victorious in battle.

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The Saltire, Scotland’s National Flag

It wasn’t until the year 1320 that St Andrew was made the official patron of Scotland at the Declaration of Arbroath. In 1390, St Andrew began to appear on coinage; however, the saint’s relics were destroyed during the Scottish Reformation in the 1500s.

FACTS ABOUT SAINT ANDREW

  • Saint Andrew was a fisherman in Galilee

  • St Andrew was one of the twelve apostles (disciples of Jesus) and brother of St Peter

  • St Andrew is believed to have died on a diagonally transverse cross which Romans sometimes used for executions and which, therefore, came to be called St Andrew’s Cross

  • St Andrew’s Day is connected with Advent, which begins on the first Sunday after November 26

  • St Andrew is also the patron saint of Greece, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine

  • In Scotland, St Andrew’s Day is seen as the start of a season of Scottish winter festivals including Hogmanay and Burns Night

Among St Andrew’s many responsibilities, he is also the patron saint of unmarried women. Many folklore traditions surround this auspicious day. European girls would traditionally perform rituals, which might be anything from divining by pouring molten lead into water, to kicking a straw bed in the nude, while reciting the St Andrew’s prayer. While doing this they would, of course, look for a lucky sign of love.

ST ANDREW’S DAY AT HOME

Celebrate with a ceilidh! A popular form of social gathering in Scotland, ceilidhs were the traditional setting for dancing, singing, and storytelling. You and your family can celebrate your own feast. Let your main course be fish since St Andrew was a fisherman. Include some Scottish traditions, recite poems by Scottish poets, or recount the history of Scotland together as a family. If you’re feeling lively, get up and dance some traditional Scottish jigs!

Watch a short video about the patron saint of Scotland & the Scottish national holiday of St Andrew’s Day

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Externsteine: Sacred Stones of Germany

Externsteine: Sacred Stones of Germany

Externsteine is a mysterious rock formation near Ostwestfalen-Lippe in northwest Germany. In an area that is largely void of massive stone structures, the uniqueness of these soaring columnar rocks is what makes them especially interesting. Many theories abound about this very interesting site located on the northeastern slope of the Teutoburger Waldthe place that the Romans were defeated by the Germans in 9 CE.

The formation of multiple free-standing stone pillars stretches for several hundred meters. In total, there are 13 stone structures. The etymology of the name Extern- is unclear (-steine meaning “stones” or “rocks”). The Latinized spelling with x is first recorded in the 16th century, but became common only in the late 19th century.

The oldest recorded forms of the name read Agistersten and Eggesterenstein, both dated 1093. Other forms of the name include Egesterenstein (12th century), Egestersteyn(1366), Egersteyne (1369), Egestersten (1385), Egesternsteyn (15th century), Eygesternsteyn (151), Externsteine (1533), Egesterennstein (1583), Agisterstein (1592).

In a popular tradition going back to an idea proposed to Hermann Hamelmann in 1564, the Externsteine are identified as a sacred site of the pagan Saxons, and the location of the Irminsul idol reportedly destroyed by Charlemagne.

One thing is for certain, from the very earliest times this place was a very sacred spot for many tribes. Archaeological excavations have yielded some Upper Paleolithic stone tools dating to about 10,700 BC from 9,600 BC. Beneath a rock overhang on rock VIII, microliths from the Ahrensburg culture such as arrow heads or blades were found. Evidence of fire sites was also found. Further adding to its sacred connection, Externstein is associated with archaeoastronomical speculation; a circular hole above the “altar stone” in the Höhenkammerhas been identified in this context as facing in the direction of sunrise at the time of summer solstice.

Externsteine Teuteburger Wald

It is thought that perhaps the Goddess Ostara/Eostra was worshiped here and it has been suggested that the Bruchterian prophetess/oracle Veleda (from a tribe along the lower Rhine) about whom The Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote, resided, unseen by men, in the upper sanctuary – a space where men were not allowed to enter. This upper temple on the rock pinnacle – the only one of the rocks that has retained its original peak – was probably originally an enclosed cave-chamber within which the prophetess studied the heavens, the movements of the stars, moon and sun, through the circular opening in the rock wall. This space was an observatory and has an almost exact northeasterly alignment.

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The roof of this rock-chamber was either deliberately destroyed or it eroded naturally and it is now only semi-enclosed. But considering that (according to the Carolingian annals) the “Irminsul” was destroyed, or broken off by Charlemagne in 772 AD one can be excused for thinking that it was deliberate. This pinnacle was, according to legend, the site of the sacred “Irminsul,” the Saxon spiraling Tree Pillar. The oldest chronicle describing an Irminsul refers to it as a tree trunk erected in the open air.

After the Externsteine was purged of its pagan influence by Charlemagne, hermit monks began to settle into caves at the base of the rocks. Their task was to Christianize the site and to “drive out evil influences.” During this period, the monks, with the help of local bishops, began to render carvings into the rocks to memorialize their Christian influence in the area. There is no doubting the powerful symbolism of represented in the central bas e39028797f16e411d9001edfced6faf3relief, the largest of its kind in Europe. The famous carving depicts the Tree of Life,  a pagan representation of Earth power, bowing down beneath the body of Jesus Christ being taken from the cross. Converts would have immediately understood the various symbols represented, especially the weeping sun and moon, both important pagan fertility images of the masculine and feminine. They would have seen the ancient tree of pagan knowledge being changed to represent the Christian Tree of the Cross. This carving is unique because it is the only known German sculpture showing a distinct Byzantine influence.

The hermits eventually abandoned the site in the fifteenth century, the chapel they built left to ruin, and the site was transformed to a small fortress. When this system of fortification was outdated, the counts of the region used the site for court banquets. After the death of Count Adolf in 1666, everything fell into decay.

Over time, the legend of Externsteine inspired a great number of books, essays, paintings, and novels. In 1824, the author Goethe wrote an essay on the descent from the cross carving, even though he never visited Externsteine himself.

The Externsteine is now a recognized pagan center and mystical site. It has been inhabited by pre-Germanic people, the Saxons, Christian monks, and today it is a popular New Age destination. Today, between a half to one million people annually visit the stones, making the Externsteine one of the most frequently visited nature reserves in Westphalia.

Because of its reputation as “pagan sacred site” in popular culture, there have often been private gatherings or celebrations on the day of summer solstice and Walpurgis Night. Despite the varying views on the origins and significance of this site to prehistoric peoples, there is no doubt that the Externsteine is a magical place to behold!

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In 1926, the Externsteine were declared “one of the oldest and most important nature reserves in Lippe,” and were placed under protection.