Long ago, the night between the 12th and 13th of December was regarded as the longest night of the year, a night when extra protection was needed. It was the custom in some parts of Sweden to prepare a meal and serve it by candlelight during that long and cold night. Swedes sometimes called it “att lussa”. Lussa referred to light, lux in Latin, luce or lucia in Italian.
On December 13th AD 304, a young girl called Lucia died in Syracusa, Sicily. She had refused to make a sacrifice to the emperor Diocletian and the punishment was death, martyrdom. Legend asserts that Lucia, during her life, was willing to sacrifice even her eyes for her true belief.
In the middle of the 19th century, Gunnar Wennerberg brought the Lucia song to Sweden from Naples, after a visit to Italy. The song is about a little fishing port, Santa Lucia: Sul mare luccica l’astro d’argento. It was given a Swedish text and became very popular in Sweden. The modern way of celebrating Lucia was introduced by the Swedish newspaper Stockholmstidningen. They organised a contest and “crowned” their first Lucia in 1927.
Now the name “Lucia” has a special place in every Swede’s heart. Lucia is celebrated in practically every home and Church, community and club, school and office. Lucia appears, dressed in a white gown and with a crown of candles – with a group of girls also dressed in white. Sometimes young boys wearing tall paper cones with stars on them accompany her. They all sing the Lucia song and Christmas Carols.
Our Academy of Vocal Music has been singing Sankta Lucia service for the last 21 years in the beautiful Baroque Church of St Philip, Birmingham Cathedral. The distinctive order of service was established from the very beginning in 1996, combining traditional English Christmas hymns, Swedish repertoire from the 16th century to now, and a selection of seasonal music from Ex Cathedra’s rich library, including music from around the world and music written by local composers. The international element has always been important. The Swedish songs owe much to several generations of Swedish singers studying at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, our Swedish business partners and the distinguished conductor Robert Sund with whom Jeffrey Skidmore explored Scandinavian culture in Stockholm and Uppsala in the 1990s.