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Danish traditions For Members

EXPLAINED: How Denmark celebrates Saint Lucia Day

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: How Denmark celebrates Saint Lucia Day
Kayaks in Copenhagen Harbour during St. Lucia 2021. Photo: Ida Marie Odgaard/Ritzau Scanpix

Every year in Denmark, on December 13th, you may see a procession of girls dressed in white, holding candles. This is the tradition of Saint Lucia Day, which is celebrated in kindergartens, schools and churches across Denmark.

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Saint Lucia, also known in Denmark as Luciadag, Sankta Lucia or Santa Lucia, is celebrated on December 13th.

Saint Lucia, or Lucy, was a 3rd century Christian martyr from Italy whose name means light. 

Denmark adopted the celebration from Sweden, where Saint Lucia Day is a big event that has been celebrated since 1927.

Denmark introduced Saint Lucia Day in 1944 during the Second World War, to bring light and hope during a dark time.

The tradition of St Lucia Day is for girls, usually of school-age to dress in white and sing the Saint Lucia song, holding candles. One girl is chosen to portray the saint and wears a crown of candles (often real, not battery because this is Denmark) at the front of the procession.

The candles are believed to represent the fire which was used to try and sentence Saint Lucia to death.

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The story goes that a young man, whom Lucia was meant to marry, had ordered her to be taken away because she had vowed herself to God instead of marriage. She spurned all worldly possessions and wanted to distribute her dowry to the poor. 

When the guards came to take Lucia away, they were unable to move her, even when they tried hitching her to a team of oxen. So they condemned her to death by fire but she could not be burned. Finally, she died by sword and upon her death became a Christian martyr, venerated each year on December 13th. 

St Lucia Procession, Denmark

A St Lucia procession from Niels Steensen's Gymnasium, Copenhagen, 1996. Photo: Bjarke ørsted/NF/Ritzau Scanpix

The day marking Saint Lucia is not as dark as the story. It is more about bringing light into the dark winter days and feeling hyggeligt.

Schools, kindergartens, care homes and churches all hold Saint Lucia processions, which are usually held in the late afternoon or early evening.

The 'Sankta Lucia' song is always sung: if you want to hear a child-friendly version, you can find it here.

And of course there is a special Luciabolle (bun) to go with the occasion. These originate from Sweden, where they're called lussebullar, are made with saffron and go nicely with a mug of gløgg (spiced mulled wine).

There are often Lucia parades in larger venues, such as the Tivoli gardens amusement park in Copenhagen, where over one hundred singers from local choirs are scheduled to take part this year.

For the past ten years, Copenhagen has also celebrated the day with a parade of hundreds of illuminated kayaks paddling through the harbours of Copenhagen while singing.

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