Winter may be at its height, the days may be short and the wind may be whipping through its narrow streets, but Stockholm’s Gamla Stan is certainly not without drama and color.
On 13 December, the festival of Santa Lucia, a procession of children dressed in white robes and holding glowing candles moves through Stockholm's old town’s streets and squares. It is a magic moment for the youngsters – and for adults, too. Faces are lit up by the candlelight – though those worn in participants’ hair tend these days to be more safely powered by electric bulbs – and there is a palpable sense of wonder and excitement in the air.
The festivities can trace their origins back to a somewhat darker episode, though. “The original Lucia was a Roman who helped the early Christians when they were in hiding in caves beneath Rome,” says Nina Lindgren, who was born and raised in Stockholm and is passionate about Swedish culture. “To keep her hands free to carry food and water she’d put candles in her hair to give her light in the underground passages.”
Unfortunately, as was often the way with saints in Rome, things did not end well. Lucia was caught and duly martyred in 304AD. Not unusually for Scandinavia there is more than a hint of the pagan about proceedings. Many of the children’s heads are ringed by garlands of evergreen leaves, a reminder that nature endures even in the darkest depths of winter – 13 December was, under the old Julian Calendar, the shortest day of the year and a time when evil spirits would make the most of the long hours of night to get up to mischief.
These days, though, the Santa Lucia procession reaches its conclusion in the solid precincts of the Stockholm Cathedral, known as Storkyrkan or Great Church, close to the Royal Palace. Hymns and carols are sung in anticipation of the upcoming Christmas festivities and its attendant feasting on glazed ham, meatballs, pickled herring and a literal Smörgåsbord of other delicacies.
Stockholm on your wishlist? We handpicked this wonderful hotel for you!