The Winter Goddess
Today is Sankta Lucia in Scandinavia, or Saint Lucy’s Day. Once upon a time before the calendars changed from Julian to Gregorian, today was the pagan festival of lights and coincided with Yule. For our ancestors, this was the day of celebration for the Mother Goddess and the birth of the sun. The longest night brought the promise of longer days. In modern times, with the calendar shift, we have Winter Solstice around December 20-23, and Christmas and Santa Claus are our inheritance. But, what of the Winter Goddess? What role did she play in the lore and mystery of Yule?
The St. Lucy’s Day celebrations retain many indigenous European Nordic and Germanic pagan midwinter elements. Some of the practices associated with the day predate the adoption of Christianity in Scandinavia, and like much of indigenous folklore, it is centered on the yearly struggle between light and darkness.
The first mention of the Nordic observation of St. Lucy’s Day is found in the Middle Ages, and continued after the Protestant Reformation. It is likely that tradition owes its popularity in the Scandinavian countries due to the extreme change in daylight hours between the seasons in this region.
The pre-Christian holiday of Yule, or jól, was the most important holiday in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Originally the observance of the winter solstice, the rebirth of the sun, brought many traditions that remain in worldwide Christmas celebrations today. The Yule season was a time for feasting, drinking, gift-giving, and gatherings. At the time when Christianity was introduced to Scandinavia, December 13 could have remained in tradition as being the shortest day. The name “Little Yule” has stayed with the day because it marked the start of Christmas month.
A Swedish source states that the date of Winter Solstice, St. Lucia, Lucinatta, Lucia-day, Lussi-mass predates the Gregorian which implies that “Lucia’s Day” was December 13 in the Julian Calendar, which is equal to December 21 in the Gregorian Calendar.
In Nordic belief this was also the season of fear due to the forces of the dark. Lussi, a female being with evil traits, like a female demon or witch, was said to ride through the air with her followers, called Lussiferda. This could be the myth of the Wild Hunt, called Oskoreia in Scandinavia, and found across parts of Europe.
Next time you’re in Iceland, check out their Yule traditions, including the Yule cat and let me know what you think. I adore them.
Anyway, between Lussi Night and Yule, trolls and evil spirits, in some say the spirits of the dead, were thought to be active outside. It was believed to be dangerous during Lussi Night. According to traditions, children who had been naughty had to be extra careful because Lussi could come down the chimney and take them. The tradition of Lussevaka – staying awake through the Lussinatta to guard oneself and the household against evil and prepare safely for Yule, has found a modern form which is having parties until sunrise. Another company of spirits was said to come riding through the night around Yule itself, journeying through the air, over land and water. This story is much like the fairy tale retold to us by Hans Christain Andersen in The Snow Queen, its latest version being Disney’s Frozen. (Sorry Gregory. You knew that one was coming, didn’t you?)
Why is Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular, an area which prides itself on its secular beliefs, so smitten with a saint? Let’s take a brief look at the history. According to the traditional story, Lucy was born to wealthy parents around 283 AD. Her father was of Roman origin, but died when she was five years old leaving Lucy and her mother without a guardian. No verified sources for her life story exist except for the ones in hagiographies. St. Lucy, whose name Lucia translates to “light” or Lux in Latin possibly took this name because in order to serve others, she needed to have both hands free. She solved this problem by attaching candles to a wreath atop her head. This tradition is still observed today in observing her feast day.
Possibly, there is something within us with a knowledge the ancients felt for a Winter Goddess and to the old matriarchal religions, or the beliefs in the struggle between light and darkness that make this “Little Yule” the beginning of the Christmas month. Maybe there is a need within us to share the whispers of the earth song the way our ancestors understood it as the Wheel of the Earth prepares to turn at Winter Solstice. Such is the cycle of life and universal rebirth.
Shared from SwedishCulture.com
The sweet yeast rolls that are served during the Christmas season are flavoured with golden saffron and dark raisins and often shaped into ‘Lucia cats’ (lussekatter). The gingersnaps are customarily cut in the shape of little men and women, pigs or hearts, and are often decorated with frosting. It is not uncommon for children to help build little houses out of gingersnap dough to celebrate Christmas.
But sweet yeast buns without saffron are eaten year round in Sweden, usually in the form of cinnamon buns. Gingersnaps are also eaten year round, though most of the time they are not home-made and are generally just round in shape.
1 g (1/28 oz) saffron threads
50 g (2 oz) yeast
200 g (7 oz) sugar
300 ml (1½ cup) milk
150–200 g (5–7 oz) butter
1 tsp salt
750 g (26 oz) flour
100 g (3½ oz) raisins
2 tbs water
To make ‘Lucia cats’ (lussekatter), grind the saffron along with a cube of sugar, using a mortar and pestle. (For those who think ahead: drip a little cognac on top, and let stand a few days.) Crumble the yeast in a bowl and stir in a few tablespoons of milk. Melt the butter and pour on the milk.
Add the rest of the ingredients, except the raisins, and knead the dough in a dough mixer for 10 minutes. Carefully mix in most of the raisins, cover the dough and let it rise for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Divide the dough into 25 pieces and roll the buns in an oblong shape, about 10 cm (4 in) long. Cover them and let rest for 10 minutes, then roll them twice as long and twist the ends of each bun in opposite directions to form a sort of figure 8. Put one raisin in the middle of each half figure 8.
Place on a greased baking sheet and let rise under a towel for about 90 minutes, or until the buns have doubled in size. Bake in the oven (220°C/425°F) for 5 minutes. Beat together the egg and water, brush the mixture on the buns. Allow to cool on the baking sheet.