Monday, December 13, 2010

My Childhood Christmas in Sweden, Part 1

Some of you asked me to describe an old-fashioned Swedish Christmas. -- Here is Part 1 of my attempt to do so. 

Advent, Santa Lucia, the Christmas Market

In churches all over the world, Christ's coming is anticipated on the four Sundays of Advent (ad'vent) n. [< L. ad, to + venire, come]In Sweden we have special Advent candle holders for four candles, one for each of these Sundays. For me as a child, anticipation began when the first candle was lit on that first Sunday. My family was not religious in a church-going sense, but we celebrated the birth of Christ and it was both a joyous and a serious time. The spirit of Christmas arrived at our house with that first candle and in the coming weeks we were getting ready for our celebrations on Christmas Eve.

The Advent Calendar, with all its little windows to be opened one for each day leading up to Christmas, was part of the excitement. In Sweden, it is also a custom to hang a golden star, made of paper with tiny holes and with a light bulb inside, in a window on the first Sunday in Advent. Stockholm in December is a dark place with few hours of daylight and I remember how lovely it was to see all the stars shining bright in the windows of the city.

Today, December 13, Santa Lucia is celebrated all over Sweden. This is a very special time, reminding people who live in this cold, dark, place that there is light in the world and celebrating this light.

According to tradition, the eldest daughter in the family, wearing a crown of candles, brings coffee and Lucia buns (lussekatter) to her parents in bed. Yes, that's me as Santa Lucia with a crown of real candles on my head! (I did have a wet napkin on my hair, underneath the crown.) The girl and her court of younger siblings sing the old Italian song, Santa Lucia, in a translation that celebrates light coming to this dark season. This tradition continues in Swedish homes today, but with battery operated candles, I'm sure.

Each community crowns their Queen of Light, their Santa Lucia, and in Stockholm there is a parade in the evening, ending in City Hall.

The original Santa Lucia was a Sicilian woman, who became a saint. She is always presented with light in some fashion in art and literature. How she came to represent the Queen of Light in far removed Sweden is a legend too long to tell here.

When I was a child in Sweden in the 1940s and early '50s, Christmas was very different from the way it is celebrated here today. Of course, it must have been very different here as well. We got presents, but I never felt a sense of stress about them or the holiday from my parents. There were no shopping malls and no Black Fridays, instead, we would go to the Christmas Market in Old Town (Gamla Stan)to buy some of our gifts. There in the medieval square, surrounded by ancient buildings with the Great Church on one side and the Royal Castle behind, was an enchanted land of Santas, goats, straw, homemade cakes, cookies, candies, toys, decorations and many, many other magical things to fill my child's mind with anticipation of the special time to come. Christmas Eve! Thinking back, anticipation may have been key to this season for me as a child. Dreaming of and wondering about the presents I would get, was certainly a part of it. But I know that as a child, my greatest joy was waking up on the morning of Christmas Eve and finding the tree decorated, lights shining, and presents underneath guarded by Julbocken, the Christmas straw goat (more about him tomorrow). 


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