While first doing my research for our trip to Finland, I had no idea that we were going the weekend of St. Lucia. Every country celebrates their own holidays and this special day is a ‘festival of lights’ in Northern Europe typically celebrated in Sweden, Norway and Finland on December 13th. Always up for any sort of sort of celebration, I was excited to find out that we would be celebrating this parade with the rest of Helsinki in the most popular square in town, bring it on!
A bit of a back story on this famous saint. St. Lucia wasn’t any ordinary saint, she was known as one of the first Christian martyrs killed by the Romans in 304 because of her religious beliefs. She is also happens to be one of eight women, who along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.
Her story has been mentioned in The Golden Legend ‘Legenda aurea’ for those who you who know Latin, which is a sort of collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine or as I liked to think of it, a ‘medieval bestseller’. She also gets a mention in Dante’s Purgatorio, she carries the sleeping Dante to the entrance to Purgatory. Saint Lucia is also celebrated in various areas of Italy.
Who was this shining saint?
She was the daughter of rich noble parents and from an early age decided to dedicate herself to god and donate her dowry to the poor, not surprisingly her mother Eutychia had different ideas and decided to arrange a marriage between Lucia and a wealthy pagan man.
After her mother was cured of a bleeding illness after a pilgrimage to Catania, on behest of her daughter, Lucia, she was pushed again to donate their wealth to the poor with Lucia stating “…whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Savior, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.”
Not everyone agreed with this noble move, the man she was engaged to was incensed to lose out on this fortune and denounced Lucia to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse (such an ass). When she refused to burn a sacrifice, she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel, and later taken away and killed. Naturally this was not the day and age to go against what any man’s plans were for you, as poor Lucia learned first-hand.
Some of the gruesome details of how she was martyred include rumors that the Romans gouging out her eyes before execution. The reason behind this varies, according to wikipedia “before she died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy end of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximian would meet his end. This so angered Paschasius that he ordered the guards to remove her eyes. Another version has Lucy taking her own eyes out in order to discourage a persistent suitor who admired them. When her body was prepared for burial in the family mausoleum it was discovered that her eyes had been miraculously restored”.
Also noted “Because Lucy’s Latin name Lucia shares a root (luc-) with the Latin word for light, lux. This has played a large part of Saint Lucy being named as the patron saint of the blind and those with eye-trouble.”
Celebrating St. Lucia in Helsinki
It makes sense that these countries in the north would celebrate Lucia, after all she essentially ‘brings’ the light to places with very long, very dark winter. In Helsinki, each year the town selects a new ‘Saint Lucia’ to be adorned with a white dress and rad sash (which represents martyrdom) with a lingonberry crown or wreath of candles placed delicately on her head.
We were just as enthralled as anyone to witness this, we met our guide Maria about 15 minutes before the procession started and there was an excited buzz inside the cathedral as we all waited to see who it would be. I was super happy to have gotten prime-time seats in the ‘saint’s superbowl’ in Helsinki.
Being picked to be Saint Lucia is a very big deal, the girls range in their teens and early twenties and 10 finalists are selected by a jury, the final winner is then picked in the next round. I should mentioned that she also needs to have the gift of ‘music’ since she is expected to sing throughout the ceremony.
The new ‘Saint Lucia’ is then crowned on December 13th at the Helsinki Cathedral, and after leads a procession outside in the city streets, her main job to offer an abundance of joy, music and golden light to any soul who needs it. It attracts thousands of people, especially Swedish-speaking Finns who live there locally. The ceremony combines elements of both pagan and Christian traditions.
No Ordinary Beauty Queen
For those who think this is just a ‘beauty contest’ you couldn’t be further from the truth if you tried. ‘Lucia’ is synonymous with charity and covers many roles which are built on centuries of Nordic tradition, one of that being a ‘Swedish-speaking Finn’s Lucia,’ and is obligated to offer a beautiful, ethereal experience.”
What’s most important to remember is that she is bearer of great social responsibility, she helps raise money to help children who have experienced domestic violence. After the 13th, she visits hospitals, orphanages, daycare centers and nursing homes at the darkest time of the year in Finland, bring light wherever she falls.
She is human in her simplicity and every little girl dreams of being Saint Lucia when she gets older. We spotted many cute Finnish young girls in dresses and with electric candle wreaths in their hair. When the music started in the cathedral, a hush slowly went through the crowd as a beautiful group of young girls carrying candles walked up to the front of the church. St. Lucia walked slowly down the center aisle, her wreath never even moving an inch, naturally she had perfect blond ringlets with a magical voice that could sharpen the harshest critic.
The ceremony felt a bit like a regular mass, mixed with plenty of singing. At that moment, I truly wished I could understand Finnish but all I understood was ‘Lucia.’ Both Nico and I were mesmerized by the whole thing, it felt like another planet in a way but it was truly such a beautiful ceremony to witness. After St. Lucia and her ‘girls’ left the cathedral, all of Helsinki seemed to be outside, thousands of people standing in the cold, dark Saturday evening to see their newly-crowned Lucia.
We followed the action outside, it was a bit of an eye-opener to be around so many people but surprisingly everyone remained respectful, happy and definitely not pushing or shoving (oh Italy you could learn something from the Finns). She got into a horse-drawn carriage to take then part of a little parade going through the center of town, with kids, parents and what seems like everyone in Finland clamoring around, vying for a look at the one who brings the light.
If you want to see the full Saint Lucia procession and ceremony, check it out here and check out this small snippet below that I captured from one of the benches. I highly recommend visiting Helsinki, in the winter, and if you get the chance to go in December, don’t miss this parade that starts every December 13th at 5pm on the Helsinki Cathedral steps.