Saturday, 10 December 2011

Seasonal Gratings.

This blogger is an old curmudgeon, and not much one for the whole christmas shtick. However, occasionally there is a grating and scraping noise, as his cast-iron armour loosens for a moment.

I was reminded by another blog that it's almost time for Luciafest in the northern regions. Here, we've forgotten, mostly, that christmas is not just a christian festival, not just a major marketing opportunity for mammon, but also a far older thing, celebrated long before the mediterranean religion came.
It's Yule. or Jul.
All about the darkness of winter, the dying of the sun. And rebirth. A new beginning, the coming of the light, and the celebration of the solstice.

My first introduction to Lucia-fest was in 1979. I was living in Iceland, working as a potter. my friend was dating a swedish girl, who worked in a hospital at Reykjalundur, and I got to know a group of friends working there and in other Reykjavik hospitals.
On the 13th december, Luciafest, I was invited to Reykjalundur, where the swedish girls had chosen their Lucia.
We waited in darkness, and the singing started. And the procession entered, a blonde girl with a green garland in her hair, a crown of light, wearing a white robe, with a red sash,  singing. And, following her, more girls, each carrying a candle, their faces uplit, for a curmudgeon like me, it was beautiful, it was spiritual. 'Lucia'  told us about the meaning of the tradition, we ate a meal of seasonal swedish dishes they had cooked, then someone told us the Northern Lights were in the sky, so we all went out, and lay on our backs on the grass, watching curtains of ethereal light flicker across the sky. It seemed a perfect companion to the bringers of the light.

In pagan times, people were never sure that the world was not ending, condemned to darkness and cold as the sun died. Only by festival and sacrifice could the sun be reborn, through death to renewed life.
But when christianity came to the north, there were two gods to appease, two rebirths.
The Norse king, Hakon the Good, made it the law that Jul (yule) was to be celebrated at the same time as the Chritsians celebrated  Christ's Mass, this was his first move in converting his pagan countrymen to christianity, a stealth move, he knew his religion would be rejected if he proclaimed it openly, so he sought to gradually introduce it, as he built his own popularity.
"King Hakon was a good Christian when he came to Norway; but the whole country was heathen, with much heathen sacrifice. As many great people, as well as the favour of the common people, were to be conciliated, he resolved to practice his Christianity in private. He kept Sundays, and the Friday fasts, and some token of the greatest holy days. He made a law that the festival of Yule should begin at the same time as Christian people held it, and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt into ale and keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted."
  (Saga of Haakon the Good)

"Midvinterblot", Carl Larsson.
The sagas tell that, following several years of famine, which was held to be the fault of King Domald, and those previous years sacrifices of oxen having not appeased the gods, it was decided that the only sacrifice great enough to bring back the favour of the gods, would be the sacrifice of the Domald, the King himself. This was at  the great temple of the gods, in Uppsala. Not quite co-incidentally, the cathedral in Uppsala, Domkyrkan, in which those girls in the video above sing to Lucia, is said to be built on the site of the temple where Domald's sacrifice gave life back to the land. 

I prefer the singing and the white-robed girls and their candles, bringing back the light, I'd rather live in the world Hakon envisaged, than the one where  Domald died.

So, a toast to Lucia. 
candle trails at Salisbury Cathedral via The Nag on the Lake
Light your candles on Lucia's day, December the Thirteenth, and know that winter will end, the sun will return. And actually it will do that no matter what your beliefs, no matter what rituals you follow in the coming weeks.

Gledelig Jul!


  1. That Lucia fest in 1979 sounds like a perfect celebration of light overcoming darkness as the days become longer. Thanks for this post.

  2. Quite a lovely video and post about your days of yore. Interesting to me, having grown up in an Eastern Orthodox church, we did something quite similar, only at Easter.

    The liturgy was held at night and would begin with all the lights in the church being turned off. Candles were passed to each of the congregation and lit one to the other. We filed slowly outside the church and stood before its closed doors. There the priest re-enacted Mary Magdalene's approach to the tomb of Christ and finding it empty. An angel speaks.

    Though Christian in origin, this event also celebrates a 'new light' entering a dark world, re-birth and renewal. Another reminder of Christianity incorporating the old Pagan traditions.

    I would so love to see the aurora borealis. If I had a bucket-list, it would fill the top 50 slots...!



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