Thousands Observe the National Saint Lucia Procession in Helsinki – The Tradition, Explained

Ingrid Holm, the national Saint Lucia, walking down the steps of Helsinki Cathedral on December 13, 2016. Lucia means "light" in Latin. Picture. Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Ingrid Holm, the national Saint Lucia, walking down the steps of Helsinki Cathedral on December 13, 2016. Lucia means “light” in Latin. Picture. Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

The doors of Helsinki Cathedral creaked as Ingrid Holm, 18, stepped out in a burst of light. She was balancing a crown of candles on her head and wearing a white gown with the red sash – the classic outfit of the national Saint Lucia. A moment ago, she had officially been crowned as the light bringer and charity collector with over 90 gigs ahead.

On Thursday, she’ll sing for the President. She’ll visit hospitals, children’s homes, elderly homes and prisons. She will sing in events across the country with her maidens and help to raise funds for the Lucia Collection for the benefit of families in need, arranged by the non-governmental organization Folkhälsan.

On Tuesday evening, thousands filled the steps of the cathedral and the Senate Square to observe the ceremony. “Watch out that you don’t fall,” an elderly lady advised the smiling Ingrid, who was about to start the journey down the steep steps – a tough task for anyone balancing a crown of candles on their head. Even if they were lighted with batteries.

According to the legend, Saint Lucia is a powerful and compassionate saint with God-like powers. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

According to the legend, Saint Lucia is a powerful and compassionate saint with God-like powers. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Ingrid, however, is no first-timer in balancing candles. Her résumé includes Lucia-experience from the southwestern town of Turku and her hometown Dragsfjärd, present-day Kimitoön, located at an hour’s drive away from Turku at the Archipelago Sea. Like Ingrid, the majority of the town’s  7,000 inhabitants speak Swedish.

Ingrid’s predecessors have walked down the steps of the cathedral since the 1950s, but the Saint Lucia’s Day celebrations arrived in Finland from Sweden already in the beginning of 1900s.  Swedish female teachers brought the custom to the Finnish elementary schools, from where the tradition spread with the students to the Finnish-Swedish families. Today, local towns have their own Lucia celebrations but the national Lucia is selected by a public vote.

The star boys wear a similar gown as Lucia but they don't have to wear candles in their hair. It's the boys' "Lucia moment." Originally, the character of the star boys is based on the "Three Wise Men" who went on a search for the baby boy Jesus in the Bible. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

The star boys wear a similar gown as Lucia but they don’t have to wear candles in their hair. It’s the boys’ “Lucia moment.” Originally, the character of the star boys is based on the “Three Wise Men” who went on a search for the baby boy Jesus in the Bible. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

During the wartime in the early 1940s, Saint Lucia was made popular by the Swedish nurses. Another introduction to the Lucia tradition was spread by the Finnish-Swedish girls who arrived in Finland after studying in the neighboring country.

The origins of Saint Lucia traditions, however, arrived far away from Sweden, from Italy’s autonomous island Sicily, from Lucia’s hometown, Syracuse. Nobody seems to know exactly how she worked her way into the Swedish tradition, but it became popular in the 1900s.

The legend has it that Lucia was a powerful and compassionate saint. She is said to have worn the crown of candles while bringing food to the persecuted people hiding under the city of Syracuse, in the dark catacombs. Her hands were filled with food and drink, so she had to place candles in a wreath on her head in order to see in the dark tunnels. This happened somewhere in the year 300, and the catacombs, indeed, date from this time.

There are several legends of Lucia’s eyes. One, that can be seen in the icons, features Lucia holding her eyes on a dish, without being eyeless herself. This is related to a story where a wicked saint, Paschasius, decided to have Saint Lucia tortured for impudence. Her assailants plucked out her eyes, but the Blessed Virgin Mary intervened and gave Lucia a pair of new ones.

Lucia also famously died as a martyr. According to the most popular legend, Lucia was praying in her favorite spot, when she was beheaded while the priests uttered the word “Amen.”

Lucia is escorted in a horse-pulled cart around the city. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Lucia is escorted in a horse-pulled cart around the city. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

But in the dark, snowless and cold winter Tuesday evening, Lucia was the symbol of hope and joy; for many children, the official countdown to Christmas had begun. Ingrid waved from the horse-pulled cart as she continued her procession through Aleksanterinkatu and the Esplanade Park. She waved and smiled and she was followed by star boys and gnomes shouting “Merry Christmas!”

And the children waved back.

Christmas gnomes joining the Lucia procession. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Christmas gnomes joining the Lucia procession. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

 

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