Saintly Swedish celebration lights up the season

“You did not hide your light under a basket, but let it shine for the whole world, for all the centuries to see.” ~ From the Prayer of St. Lucy

By Mark Schmeltzer

If you’re not a fan of winter, December’s cold, dark days can be particularly gloomy in northern Illinois. Thankfully, Christmas festivities abound to make the month merry and bright, keeping your spirits high until the daylight lengthens again. And the Chicago area offers more options for celebrating the season than almost anywhere. Here, you can experience an entire world of Christmas customs without ever journeying far from home.

For example, you can trek to the South Side and the Museum of Science and Industry to encounter decorated Christmas trees from around the globe. If we’re willing to brave the elements for a little while, you can be dazzled by outdoor light displays at institutions such as The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, and our zoos in Brookfield and Lincoln Park. You can even guzzle up as much gemütlichkeit (a word that translates roughly as ‘warmth and good cheer’) as you can possibly stand at two open-air German Christkindlmarkets. One is just steps away from your downtown State Street window shopping, while another operates in suburban Naperville.

But there’s one Advent tradition that will really fill you with a warm Yuletide glow, and that’s the annual St. Lucia Celebration in the Andersonville neighborhood on the city’s far North Side. Organized by the Swedish American Museum, the festival on Dec. 13 is highlighted by its candle-lit procession honoring St. Lucia of Syracuse.

While the third-century Italian saint is venerated in many countries, St. Lucia’s feast day has become particularly popular as a festival of lights in Scandinavia, where it once coincided with the winter solstice in the Julian calendar. On the shortest day of the year, St. Lucia (or Lucy, whose name means ‘light’) signifies the coming end of darkness in a part of the globe where the winter nights are among the longest.

Historical accounts of Lucia’s life vary, but it is agreed that she was martyred in Syracuse, Sicily, during a time of persecutions in A.D. 304. Lucia is believed to have been born of wealthy parents in A.D. 283. Her father died when Lucia was five years old.

Lucia dedicated her life to Christ and to feeding the poor. She also vowed to remain unwed and a virgin as inspired by St. Agatha. When she rejected an arranged marriage with a pagan suitor, she was denounced as a Christian and sentenced to a life of forced prostitution. But tradition holds that when authorities tried to seize her, she became so filled with the Holy Spirit that she was rendered completely immovable—even when hitched to a team of oxen. She was then set upon a pyre, but again, divine intervention prevented the wood from igniting. In the end, she was slain with a dagger.

Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and is often depicted holding two eyes on a plate. Differing versions explain the symbolism. One is that during her punishment, her Roman persecutors plucked out her eyes. But another holds that she removed them herself to discourage her suitor. As her body was being prepared for burial, her eyes were said to have been restored miraculously.

In Sweden, centuries later, St. Lucia’s celebration combines elements of the ancient pagan observances of the solstice or Yule. On her feast day, nearly every Swedish town selects a young girl to lead a procession wearing a white dress and a red sash symbolizing martyrdom. Further, the girl wears a crown or wreath made of lingonberry branches and adorned with candles. Again, stories differ on the significance of the torches. One account holds that it is because of the connection between Lucia’s name and light. But another relates the story that Lucia would smuggle armloads of food to persecuted Christians hiding in the darkness of the catacombs, while wearing the candles to illuminate the way. St. Lucia attendants also carry cookies and saffron buns to symbolize bringing the light of Christianity to a world of darkness, while boys play various roles associated with Christmas.

The St. Lucia tradition continues today, not only in Sweden and throughout Scandinavia, but right here in Chicago with candlelight from the procession playing off the shop windows along North Clark street in Andersonville. The Lucia girl, her attendants and “Star Boys” sing Christmas carols and the Lucia Song, which is filled with imagery about her light chasing away the darkness from the land. Children and adults join the walk as well.

Following the procession, participants are invited back to the to the Museum to learn more about the Lucia story and to enjoy family entertainment and traditional Swedish holiday treats.

Andersonville’s St. Lucia festival is a testament to the historic heart of Swedish immigration to Chicago, a city that once boasted the largest ethnic Swedish population outside of Stockholm. It was to this former suburb that many set up shop when priced out of a near North Side neighborhood rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871.

While it’s now a diverse and eclectic community, the neighborhood still honors its Swedish roots. In addition to the museum, there’s an old prohibition era speakeasy, now a bar named Simons, whose Viking fish neon sign is a local landmark, as well as a famous water tower painted in the blue and gold of the Swedish flag. There’s no better place in Chicago to sample Swedish and Scandinavian culture. In addition to the St. Lucia “Midwinter” celebration, the community also holds a Midsommarfest in June.
If you go
St. Lucia Festival of Lights, Tues., Dec. 13, 4:45–7:00 p.m., Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark St. Admission is $1 or can of food to benefit Care for Real, Edgewater’s food pantry.

Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer
who works in non-profit communications.

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