Making sweet saffron rolls with her aunt for the Festival of St. Lucia was a highlight of Elizabeth Johnson’s youth, recalls the Plymouth native. The December 13 holiday is widely celebrated in Scandinavia and commemorated locally at Gustavus Adolphus College—Johnson’s alma mater—and the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
“We celebrated all throughout my childhood, singing Swedish carols. I even had the costume with the crown with the lights,” she says. “I was a very dedicated Lucia.”
There are several legends about “Sankta Lucia” (pronounced Loo-see-uh), and they all center on service to others and light in the darkness. The most popular Swedish version is that after Lucia was martyred, a ship with a maiden "clothed in white and crowned with light" appeared during a famine. Widely believed to be Lucia, she distributed food and clothing to the needy, endearing herself to the Swedish people.
Others think the story is connected to the Latin root of Lucia, “lux,” meaning light, and that the holiday began as a pagan rite for winter solstice--the shortest day of the year.
In Sweden, girls wear long white gowns and crowns of green branches adorned with lit candles, now battery-operated for younger girls. Processionals are held in towns, schools, churches—both Protestant and Catholic—and a national Lucia is chosen to visit hospitals and seniors’ residences.
Johnson’s family—parents Susan Ripley and Roger Johnson and brother Ryan—faithfully observed the day, and Elizabeth continued during her college years at Gustavus, which was founded by Swedish immigrants. As a sophomore, Johnson served as a member of St. Lucia’s Court. “It was probably the most flattering honor that I ever could have received…absolutely one of the highlights of my college experience,” she said. “When I called my grandma, who is Swedish, she cried.”
The campus community submits nominations of sophomore women to be part of the Court who exemplify Lucia’s qualities: courageous leadership, service character and compassion, and therefore, like Lucia, is a light unto others. They then vote, and a Lucia and her court are chosen.
Gustavus commemorates the day on a Thursday in early December. The procession “has to be done before classes start,” Johnson explained, “so it’s pitch black outside. It’s five a.m. We put on our costumes and campus security drives the whole Court around campus...going to each of the dorms, where we sing traditional Swedish songs and carols throughout the hallways." A ceremony in the chapel follows, with songs and prayers, and the Lucia Singers choir.
Johnson says that while truly an honor, being Lucia is not as glamorous as it seems. “The actual crown with real candles has to be so secure, almost drilled onto her head,” she said, and wax gets in Lucia’s hair. “Behind the scenes it was actually quite painful to see.”
The ceremony is followed by a smorgasbord, with Lucia buns, lutefisk and live Swedish music.
“The women in the Court ended up being some of my dearest and closest friends,” Johnson said. “It is a powerful experience."
Johnson moved to Sweden this fall to study at Linnaeus University in the city of Kalmar. “I really should have taken more Swedish," says Johnson, who studied Spanish at Gustavus. "It didn’t occur to me that I could some day live here.”