Thursday, December 18, 2008

Every Swedish girl's dream

Jennifer As we were driving back from Harkeberga Church a few weeks ago, the conversation turned to the approaching holiday season, and I asked about what were particularly Swedish things to do and see. "You must be sure to see the Lucia celebrations," said P., "It's very beautiful, and quite a big deal." A pause. "I was never chosen to be Lucia in school," she added morosely. "It has scarred me for life. I sometimes think my whole academic life has been an attempt to overcome this."

Every year across this great nation, on 12 december, a girl plays S:t Lucia. The duties of this girl are to wear white robes and a crown of candles, sing the S:t Lucia song, and look angelic. What girl? you ask. Mostly it's a school thing—every class chooses a Lucia, and generally every city and town does too. But Lucia's not just for little kids. There's an official, country-wide Lucia, who is the winner of a combined talent and beauty contest. This year, Sweden's Lucia is a student from the ag school just down the road, so she's an Uppsalabo, a fact that the local paper went to some pains to point out at every possible opportunity.

For most people, Lucia means music. Each department at the University has its own Lucia concert, in which the students of the local music schools dress in the traditional white robes and sing Lucia songs and Christmas carols. The concert at the EBC was performed in the stairwell of the old Zoology building, now the Evolution Museum. The wide marble halls give a lovely sound, and the echo is not bad at all because the place is crammed with the staff and students from the entire complex. They turned all the lights off to better see the candles, so the picture at right is blurry but maybe gives you a little bit of an idea of what it looked like. (There was a Lucia pageant at the computer campus, too, but Joe didn't get to see it because he had his exam at that time. Just for fun, you should ask him how he feels about having a data mining exam instead of getting to observe this most traditional Swedish custom.)

Earlier in the week, a vague email had gone out about getting the "newcomers" to "entertain us" at the afternoon fika. No one ever said anything more about it, so we "newcomers" figured everyone had forgotten about it. I had lunch with B. (a student in her mid 20s) and L. (a postdoc in her mid 30s, mother of two). "So what are you newcomers doing for the afternoon fika?" B. asked. "Well, nothing," I said. "Oh." she said. Several moments passed in silence. "But you could be Lucia," L. said. "And?" I said. They looked at me blankly, then exchanged a glance with each other. "Well, it's very important," B. said. "There are big contests and everything. I was never chosen to be Lucia." "Neither was I," L. said. The both stared at me.

Now I understood. Here I was, about to pass up the chance to achieve every little Swedish girl's dream. (I'm often a little slow, but I usually do get there, eventually.) I'm not really into these girly-girl sorts of things—when my long-suffering mother reads this post, I will know it, because I will be able to hear her laughing hysterically from across the ocean—but I was suddenly inspired to make a last-second effort. I enrolled fellow newcomer G.'s help, and he had the brilliant idea of red tape on a lab coat, mimicking the white robes and red belt. While I frantically searched the web trying to find the Lucia lyrics in English, he also found a candle motif and printed it on a couple pieces of paper, bending it 'round and taping it to make a sort of a crown. I taped the flashlight I carry in my bag to the inside of the crown, turned it on so that the crown glowed slightly, and voila! Instant Lucia.

I looked like a burger flipper at Max.

But never mind: G. was bringing Swiss chocolate to fika anyway, so that covered his "newcomer" obligation, and therefore it was my duty to make a total fool of myself in front of my co-workers. To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, let us draw a curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.

So there it is. I've been Lucia, and lived the dream. What's left for me to accomplish now?

(Jennifer, the most ghetto Lucia in the whole history of Lucias, trying to look pious. Don't worry, there were more people there to witness my humiliation, they're just out of shot. Lab coats are not very flattering, are they?)

Want to learn more about Lucia, the way it's supposed to be?

The "official" Lucia for Sweden is chosen in a charity event called Bride of Sweden. Note that the title was awarded by such notables as Princess Christina, Saul Bellow, and Astrid Lindgren. If you want to see the the 2008 lineup of finalists, and I'll bet you do, here they are. Emma Johansson was this year's winner. Note that they must sing as well, and the winner and her court do have a rather busy schedule of visits to hospitals and things, and spend pretty much the entire day singing. The local newspaper interviewed Johansson, in case you want another look at her. And you can see a Lucia court sing the song on youtube, of course.

Sometimes boys want to be Lucia too! (P. and I joined an on-line group in support of their cause.)

I'll leave you with this quote from the official Sweden promotional website.
The Lucia tradition can be traced back both to St Lucia of Syracuse, a martyr who died in 304, and to the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam's first wife. It is said that she consorted with the Devil and that her children were invisible infernals...

Please do read the whole article and note that they kindly allow that these days the Lucia need not be beautiful and blonde... although, somehow, they almost always are...

And as a footnote, I would like to add that it occurred to me right before I went onstage that I do have some Lucia in me after all, from my maternal grandmother. Thanks, Gramma Lucille!


  1. Apropos of nothing, from

    "Two archaea walk into a bar and the bartender says, "If you guys are going to start in with the jokes again, Woese is me."" from Fred Rosenberg


    Two bacteria walk into a bar and ask for a drink. The bartender says "we don't serve bacteria." The bacteria reply, "but we work here, were staph." from Brian Malow

    It does look like you are ready to serve hamburgers.