As I have been updating this post, the four advent candles have been burning behind my laptop, and a little while ago the first candle burnt out, leaving the others to slowly sink. It is the last Sunday of Advent and Jul is almost here.
The sunburnt buildings and sweet tea of Istanbul seem a long time ago now, with winter settling in and Jul approaching. We have seen snow come and go, and the city unite in traditions that date back before memory. In sunny Australia where the sun sets after 7pm on a christmas night, the profusion of lights on houses and in trees are a glitzy and fun gimmick, to celebrate the season and create as much flash as possible. Here, as the days shorten and are more often overcast, the lights in the windows and in the trees keep away the darkness until the year turns again.
Two of my favourite traditions I have seen in Sweden so far are related to keeping the darkness at bay and though are ostensibly Christian, feel like part of an older tradition.
I must have heard something somewhere about Advent candles, as I’d been looking around for a candle-holder weeks before December arrived, to no avail. I wasn’t even sure exactly what to look for, other than assuming it held four candles and possibly looked like a smaller menorah. In case you’re reading this and wondering what I’m rambling about, the Advent candle tradition says that for every Sunday in December you light the first candle on the first Sunday, the second candle on the second, the third on the third and on the final Sunday all the candles are lit. As I understand it the tradition is some sort of count down to Jesus, but I like to think of it as a count down to Jul and the new year, and a good excuse to get involved in some old traditions.
As the weeks went on they started to pop up all over the place, and I eventually found just the right one in the city. I got four red candles and eagerly awaited the first Sunday, and watched as other windows filled with candles and lights. Most other windows have electric lights, with multiple candles in a triangle shape, which I’ll probably get next year for the sake of practicality, but in my opinion nothing beats slowly burning candles lighting up a room. Wherever I go in the city, in every neighbourhood, office building and shop, almost all windows contain Advent candles, lighting up the room and a little bit of the world outside.
There are also stars, in a variety of patterns and colours, which are hung instead of or over the candles, though what the specific tradition they represent is, I don’t know. Needless to say we have one.
The second tradition begins with far off voices gradually getting louder, and light slowly filling a dark room. When I first saw it and heard it, at the Göteborg City Hall, I was transfixed. They had stuck with tradition, and the girl who entered the room first had 6 real candles on her crown, and the other 5 were wearing pure white robes and red bands around their waists as she did. They were all singing the traditional song, Santa Lucia. They sang a number of songs in Swedish, a couple in English and then ended with the first, slowly walking out in a line as their voices faded away. I have since seen a Lucia tåg (train) at my Swedish school and semi-accidentally took part in an attempt at the world’s longest Lucia tåg, both of which were more fun and felt like part of the glue that holds Swedish culture together. The first one I saw, though, felt magical and reverent.
One version of the story says that in around 300CE there lived in Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, a young woman named Lucia. She was betrothed to some guy, and all was fine, until her mother became sick. She prayed to all the gods she could think of (this being in the late Roman Empire, they had amassed plenty for her to choose from) and ran from doctor to doctor to find a cure but to no avail. Then one night she dreamed of an angel who promised that her mother would get better if Lucia converted to Christianity, became celibate and did some proselytising.
Despite Christianity apparently being a crime at this time, she agreed. So she went around talking about Jesus and broke of the engagement, which upset her betrothed (I assume that her mother also got better, as I couldn’t find a mention of her after this stage). He told the local law enforcers about her proselytising and they attempted to arrest her, but though they grabbed her and tried to drag her away they were unable to move her. Then someone else came up with the idea of stacking wood around her and set it alight, but even engulfed in flames she lived, until someone else stabbed her with a sword. Later she was made into a saint. Even later than that her story was combined with ancient Swedish traditions and became the festival of today.
In addition of the procession of girls, and in some cases cone-hatted stjärngossar (star boys), on this night many younger people are said to party late into the night. This is supposed to be a celebration of the ending of the school or uni year, but again the tradition goes back further. An ancient Swedish tradition said that on the 13th of December the Lussi, an evil female demon, would fly around the land with her followers the Lussiferda, and kidnap anyone silly enough to be outside or who had been naughty. To protect themselves and the households people would hold a vigil all night long, keeping candles lit and watching the darkness. These days people don’t fear evil spirits who may steal them away, but some things last long after people remember why they started.
Last night we held our own party to keep the darkness at bay, a gathering of friends who came to eat and drink and talk, and enjoy the warmth and light. It happened to be on the Winter solstice, and in memory of our country that had just celebrated the Summer solstice, we served kangaroo, among curry, pepparkakor, cheesy, nutty, honeyed bread and pastries supplied by one of our guests. Before the year is over, and as the year turns, we may gather with friends again in the night, with yet more eating, talking and drinking, marking time till the end of winter.
In two days we’ll celebrate Julafton (christmas eve), opening the presents piling up under our little tree and watching by skype as our families open their gifts. Then we hope to travel somewhere not too far away, to explore more of Sweden and get away from the day to day life, and if we’re lucky see some snow. We may not get a white christmas this year, but it has so far been more of a christmas in other ways than I have ever had, apart from the lack of my family, which for me has always been the heart of Jul.