December 13 is known in Sweden as the darkest day of the year, and Swedes have a tradition of brightening things up with celebrations of Santa Lucia Day. It marks the martyrdom of the Italian saint. Swedes in the D.C. area find their own ways to embrace the festival this time of year, with a little help from the Swedish embassy.
Surviving a Swedish winter
"We need Christmas desperately, says Gabriella Augustsson, a public affairs officer at the Embassy. "Because at this time of the year in Stockholm, the sun doesn't rise until 9 o'clock in the morning, and it goes down at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. So it's more about staying sane in this very dark period."
And to stay sane -- or maybe alter reality -- Swedes begin to seriously drink glogg. It’s a warm wine mulled with cinnamon, cloves, dried orange peels and raisins. Catharina Ford has been brewing it for some 20 years.
"You pour in vodka at the end, and you have the sugar in a sib," says Ford. "You shake it back and forth, and you light it simply with a match. No egg nog, this is just all."
But there's no glogg for Santa. He gets a different treat. On tables at the Swedish celebration -- images of a gnome-like Santa are embroidered on soft towels. He sports a long beard and carts off a big bowl of porridge.
"The tradition is that the night when Santa Claus is supposed to come, you put this out for him on the doorstep," says Augustsson. "And we still do it. So no cookies for our Santa, he gets the porridge. I guess that's more sturdy in a way."
A Dec. 13 tradition in Scandinavia
So that brings us to Santa Lucia. As popular legend goes, she was a maiden in Italy around A.D. 300. She joined the Christians in their missionary work, giving food to the poor.
"When she started giving away her wedding gifts, they were a little concerned, and they actually threw her in jail," explains Alyce Olson of the embassy. "She was condemned to be burned at the stake, but when they tried to light her on fire, or to burn her, she didn't burn. So instead they slate her with the sword. Years later, the Roman Catholic Church declared her a great patron saint of the light of the body: the eyes."
And Gabriella Augustsson explains why this old Italian saint merged with an old Swedish tradition: "Because in the 14-1500s, the kids used to walk around from farm to farm to sing with candles in their hands, telling people there is hope, Christmas will be coming."
And just outside the embassy, visitors watch a procession for Lucia. A young girl wear a ring of candles in her hair. She’s slowing marching as Saint Lucia, followed by younger maidens holding candles.
"I would say this is a pretty normal Lucia for me, the same thing as in Sweden," says Alexander Johannson, a swede who now lives in Frederick, Maryland. "We're actually bringing some friends over from Sweden, so we'll probably have a traditional Swedish Christmas in the U.S."
And whether your Christmas takes on a Swedish or American-style or both it’s sure to brighten things up this year.