An editor with whom I work wanted to move our meeting from Wednesday to Thursday. "I just hope Thursday isn't another holiday," she joked on the email.
Coincidentally, Thursday is a holiday, and a special one. Through my various ties with Scandinavia I've been celebrating that region's semi-pagan festivals ever since first coming there in 1997. Sweden's observence of St. Lucy's day, the 13th of December, is the most peculiar and probably the most beautiful of these festivals.
In the early hours of the dark, Nordic winter morning, the children of the house all wear white. The eldest girl wraps a red scarf around her waist. It symbolizes St. Lucy's blood that gushed out of her eyes when they were picked. On her head she wears a wreath decorated with live, burning candles. The children then march into the parents room, bringing the coffee and saffron buns and singing this haunting melody, even more beautifully arranged here. In houses without children, lovers can be each other's St. Lucies, and in the towns appropriately attired choirs march with her hymn on their lips.
When St. Lucy died, her body was taken apart and sent to many churches around Italy. I once met a Sicilian woman who told me that her parish church is home to a toe of the saint. She also said that every year a blond girl is sent from Sweden to sing St. Lucy's hymn at that church, in presence of the toe.
I told my editor all of this and she replied that she's not sure she wanted to know it, certainly not the toe bit. I, however, love this night. It combines the morbid and the familial, the purely aesthetic and the completely bizarre. Being woken up to this music by a candle-sporting heavenly phantom, bearing steaming coffee and luminous mystery, that's a unique experience. I'm grateful to the Swedes for preserving it despite the reformation and despite the headaches caused to the Stockholm fire department.