Celebrating the return of the sun

St Lucia and attendants in Stockholm, Sweden.
St Lucia and attendants in Stockholm, Sweden.

by Heather Elvidge

December 13 is St Lucia’s Day, a festival of midwinter light in the Scandinavian countries. A young woman takes the role of Lucia, robed in white and wearing an evergreen crown studded with candles.

In Swedish towns her procession includes girls in white and “star-boys,” who represent the trolls chased away by the returning sun.

At home, the youngest daughter plays Lucia. In a white dress with a red sash, and a crown lit by battery-powered bulbs, she serves coffee and saffron buns to her family while singing a traditional song:

“The night treads heavily around yards and homes; in places unreached by sun, the shadows brood. Into our dark house she comes, bearing lighted candles: St Lucia, St Lucia.”

Saints are not usually celebrated in Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Denmark, countries that underwent a Lutheran Reformation in the 16th century. However, the sun’s return remains an understandable obsession.

In the British Isles the Lucia ceremony was held in places with strong Scandinavian connections, particularly Orkney and Shetland. Today our largest St Lucia service is in London, at St Paul’s Cathedral.

And so we go from sublime sights to ear-splitting sounds. One of England’s noisiest customs takes place this Sunday at Broughton, a village near Kettering.

As the chimes of midnight fade, a hundred or so “bandsmen” strike up outside St Andrew’s church. Musical skills are irrelevant - as are instruments - the intention is to make as much din as possible.

This old event was on the point of extinction in 1929, when the council decided to ban it. Naturally the band’s next outing drew the biggest crowd for years. Beating tin cans, buckets and dustbins, their racket resulted in several arrests. The Canners were cheered into court, and a dance raised enough to pay their fines. The council gave in, and Broughton’s Tin Can Band continues to this day.

Cold days, dark skies

We expect frosty mornings and sudden arctic chills during the year’s shortest days, although December isn’t usually Britain’s coldest month. Should we be worried that temperatures are below average?

According to meteorologists, signs indicate long periods of high pressure over the UK during January and February. This would bring dry days that are colder than normal. With this pattern snow is certainly possible, although it doesn’t mean that we’ll all be buried under huge snowdrifts.

For once, science and folklore seem to agree. The old lore suggests a very cold winter on the coast, but without a lot of snow. We’ll know more after December 21, when the wind direction indicates the prevailing wind for the following three months.

In the meantime, wrap up warm to enjoy some stargazing and planet spotting. Venus is brilliant this month as the Evening Star, while Jupiter shines out below the two brightest stars of Gemini. Reddish Mars is in Virgo, rising well before dawn. Saturn can be picked out in the pre-dawn twilight.

One of the year’s highlights is the Geminid meteor shower, peaking during the night of December 13. Alas, a nearly full moon will spoil things this year, although the brightest shooting stars should still be visible. At least we’ve got our Christmas tree lights.