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 a red sash — the classic outfit of the Lucia maiden. A moment ago, she had officially been crowned as the light bringer and charity collector. She has over 90 performances to come.
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. Today, local towns hold their own Lucia celebrations, too, but the national Lucia is selected by nationwide voting.
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.
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, most 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. Teachers from Sweden brought the custom with them to the Finnish elementary schools, from where it became a tradition among the Finnish-Swedish families. Another introduction to the Lucia tradition was given by the Finnish-Swedish girls who arrived in Finland after studying in the neighboring country.
The origin of Saint Lucia tradition, however, can be traced to Italy’s autonomous island Sicily, to Lucia’s hometown, Syracuse. Nobody seems to know exactly how she worked her way into the Swedish tradition, but she became known in the 1900s.
According the legend, Lucia was a powerful and compassionate saint. She is said to have worn the crown of candles while bringing food to the persecuted people who were hiding under the city of Syracuse, in the dark catacombs. She was carrying a lot of food in her hands, so she had to place candles in a wreath over her head in order to see in the dark tunnels. This happened somewhere in the year 300, and the catacombs, indeed, date from that time.
Many stories have been told about Lucia’s eyes. One, that can be seen in the icons, features Lucia holding another pair of eyes on a dish. The icon is related to a story of a wicked saint Paschasius who 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.” Due to these legends, Lucia is known as the saint of the blind and sight impaired.
On the snowless but cold Tuesday evening, Lucia was the symbol of hope and joy; for many children, the official countdown to Christmas had now 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 in the crowd waved back.