Every year on December 13, Finland honors Saint Lucia and the triumph of light over darkness.
Saint Lucia Day, Luciadagen, is a tradition of Swedish-origin where a young girl, clad in a white gown, red sash, and dramatic wreath of lingonberry branches and candles, ushers in the Christmas season with a candlelit procession. In Finland, thousands of girls dress up as Lucia in schools and homes across the country, and hundreds of young women compete for the honor of being chosen to represent Lucia during the elaborate ceremony in Helsinki Cathedral. There, she performs a litany of folk songs before leading a candlelit procession through the streets.
At face value, the peculiarly Nordic holiday seems to be a Catholic saint's day festival that somehow bypassed the Protestant Reformation and the secularization of Scandinavia. One of the only saint's days still observed by the Nordic countries, it honors Saint Lucy, an Italian martyr who was burned and stabbed to death in the early fourth century. Saint Lucy's cult was especially popular during the middle ages when legends of virgin martyrs were all the rage - she is one of the eight women commemorated by name during the Mass, is mentioned by Dante in Inferno, and is often depicted in art holding her own eyeballs on a dish. When the Nordic countries were Christianized in the 11th and 12th centuries, missionaries and monks probably brought the cult of Saint Lucy with them.
But why would the cult of a young Italian saint be so popular up north? Saint Lucy's feast day used to coincide with the winter solstice (it has since shifted slightly due to changes in the calendar). In the Nordic countries, where winter plunges people into almost total darkness, the winter solstice was an incredibly important annual festival where the rebirth of the sun was celebrated with feasting, drinking, and bonfires. In fact, the word for Christmas in the Nordic countries (jul in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish; joulu in Finnish; jól in Icelandic) all stem from hjul, the Old Norse word for "sun wheel."
Saint Lucy's feast day also coincided with Lussinatta, a night when people in the Nordic countries believed a witch or she-demon named Lussi rode through the air with an entourage of trolls and goblins. She snatched up anyone foolish enough to be outside in the darkness, and snuck down chimneys to steal naughty children. Lussi also punished households if they hadn't properly prepared for the hard winter, and families would stay up all night to ward her and other evils off.
It seems at some point the earlier rituals associated with the winter solstice and the Lussinatta blended together with the Christian saint's day to form the Saint Lucia Day celebrations we have today. Now, it ushers in the Christmas season as a cheerful reminder that good things — including more sunlight! — are coming. Over 30,000 Finns gather in the dark, cold night every year to see Lucia, to proclaim the victory of hope and love over despair, and — as they said during the Lucia Day service this past Sunday — to remember that "even a small light can drive away the darkness."