“This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this

Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.”

—John Donne

During the dark winters of Scandinavia, where a polar night can stretch as long as eighteen hours, you may chance to hear a song that translates:

“Night walks with a heavy step

Round yard and hearth,

As the sun departs from earth,

Shadows are brooding.”

If you are there near the winter solstice, you may get lucky and see a woman wearing a crown of greenery and a circle of flickering candles, wending her way through town as the candlelight she carries reflects from mounds of glistening snow. Accompanied by magi bearing staffs of stars, this is the annual festival of Saint Lucy, or Sankta Lucia, as she is known in Sweden.

On our northern Oregon Coast, this yearly Scandinavian tradition is celebrated the day after Thanksgiving to dispel the dark and cold of winter and to herald the light of the Christmas Season.

At 7 p.m. Friday at Astoria High School, the Sankta Lucia Bride represented by Isabel Talley (Miss Denmark 2019) will enter the auditorium wearing her crown of candles and accompanied by her court attendants and star boys. The legend of Lucia will be read and ChrisLynn Taylor will lead a singing of holiday carols. Brandy Larsen and Faith Swanson will sing the Lucia song. Viking Nordic Scandia dancers will perform, and the 2020 Scandinavian Midsummer Festival court will be introduced.

After the Lucia ceremony, Astoria’s accordion band, “The Polka Dots,” will play music for dancing around the Christmas Tree. The Lower Columbia Danish Society will serve Scandinavian treats.

For nearly two millennia, this tradition has continued, inspired by an early Christian martyr, whose name, Lucia, is a variation of the Latin word “lux,” or “light.” Lucia was born on the island of Sicily during the Roman reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who oversaw the bloodiest persecution of Christians. Diocletian ordered the Christian scriptures be burned, their places of worship razed and the people put to death. Lucia brought food and aid to hungry believers hiding in catacombs from their persecutors.

Wishing to free her hands to carry as much food as possible, she cleverly bound a candle wreath upon her head to light her way.

Later, to escape an unwanted marriage, Lucia insisted her dowry be donated to the poor. Her incensed fiancé publicly accused her of being a Christian and attempted to burn her at the stake in 310 AD, but the fire would not harm her, necessitating the use of a sword. Missionaries carried the story of Lucia’s martyrdom to Sweden, where emigrants, in turn, shared it across the world. Today, Saint Lucia’s day is celebrated in Italy, Venezuela, Estonia, Scandinavia and on the Caribbean island that bears her name. Typically observed on the winter solstice (on the Julian calendar), in Sweden, Lucia may carry saffron buns or ginger cookies. Candles are lit and electric sources are dimmed in anticipation of the light she will bring.

There is some evidence the roots of the festival may reach back much further to pagan midwinter Yule traditions when it was said, on the darkest night of the year, spirits, gnomes and trolls roamed the earth while farm animals spoke with one other. Many aspects of the tradition reflect the annual struggle between light and darkness.

For years, the festival was primarily celebrated in Sweden, but during World War II, while the populace endured a darkness far deeper than the absence of light alone, the tradition soared in popularity, spreading to Denmark, Finland and Norway. Threatened with German occupation, the holiday became a passive protest for survivors clinging to the promise that darkness might be overcome by the power of light, warm bread and tolerance.

The Sankta Lucia Festival is open to the public, and all are invited to celebrate the Scandinavian tradition that is sure to fill your evening with the light of the holiday season.

Admission supports scholarships to qualifying high school seniors throughout Clatsop County.

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