Early one winter morning, a girl in a long white gown appears, with a crown of candles on her head and a song on her lips. It's Lucia Day - Sweden's own 'festival of light'! But who was the real Lucia? Lucia Day is 13 December - Lucia's name-day. Throughout the country you can see candlelit processions of Lucias with their white-clad attendants, both girls and boys. The day commemorates St Lucia of Syracuse, a Catholic saint. Legend has it that she was a young Christian girl living in Sicily at the height of the Roman Empire. The Romans had not yet become Christians and condemned Lucia to death. She was executed on 13 December 304 AD, and became a martyr. Many historians are convinced Lucia actually existed, and that she was killed for her Christian faith. There are many stories about her. Not all of them may be true, but they are exciting to read about.

Lucia is very brave

In one story, Lucia showed great courage. She was to marry a man who was not a Christian. Women were supposed to bring a dowry with them when they wed - money, livestock or expensive gifts. But Lucia gave away her dowry to poor Christians. The man she was supposed to marry informed the Romans of this and they came round to kill her. First they tried to drown her, but failed. Then they tried to burn her to death, then ran her through with a sword. The blood soaked her white gown. This is why present-day Lucias have a red ribbon round their waists. Another story tells how Lucia's Christian friends hid from the Romans in underground passages. It was very dark down there, and when Lucia went down to see them she had food in both hands. So she fastened a candle in her hair in order to see better. This is why the Swedish Lucia has a crown of candles. She often arrives with coffee and saffron rolls (lussekatter) as well. According to a third story, Lucia was a Christian girl with wondrously beautiful eyes. A prince fell in love with her. He was not a Christian, though, so Lucia turned him down. To show her faith in God, she poked out her own eyes and gave them to the prince. He immediately converted to Christianity. Lucia was given beautiful new eyes by God. This is why Lucia is said to be the patron saint of vision.

The Swedish Lucia

In Sweden, Lucia Day has been celebrated for centuries, but not always in the same way. It used to be a very special occasion - it was thought to be the longest and darkest night of the year, when hobgoblins and witches were afield and the animals talked the language of humans. In the Middle Ages, Lucia Day was the time when the pre-Christmas fast (advent) began. People were not allowed to meat, only fish, until Christmastime. By Lucia Day, you were supposed to have stored all your grain and slaughtered and prepared whatever animals were to provide the Christmas delicacies. The Christmas pig was supposed to be slaughtered on the eve of Lucia Day. When morning came, you ate as much as you could - people sometimes put away seven breakfasts! During the 17th and 18th centuries, the first Lucias appeared - young girls clad in white gowns. Accompanied by other 'Lucia figures' wearing coats turned inside out, she went from farm to farm at the head of the parade. They sang and had fun, and were given food and drink. The first 'Lucia bride' had no crown of light and no white-clad attendants. They appeared later. The modern Lucia procession first saw the light of dawn in the 19th century, by which time she had a lighted crown and a train of 'bridesmaids' and 'star-boys'. Lucia arrives early in the morning, when it's still dark. She serves coffee, saffron rolls and gingerbread to those she visits. Contests to find a suitable Lucia began in Stockholm in 1927. A Stockholm newspaper asked its readers to vote for the girl of their choice. Nowadays, Lucia contests are commonplace. You can vote for Sweden's Lucia, for your town's Lucia and for many other different kinds of Lucia. But the Lucia contests are becoming more and more like beauty contests. In the old days, all Lucias were supposed to have long blonde hair, but this is no longer the case. Lucia processions are to be found just about everywhere in Sweden today, and many people, especially teenagers, go to parties or concerts on Lucia Eve. This is known as 'seeing Lucia in'. The celebrations often go on all night. Many local authorities and schools organize discotheques for young people, with a no-drink and no-drugs profile. Some of these celebrations get out of hand. Many young people drink beer, wine and spirits, and there are sometimes fights and trouble with the police. But most Lucia celebrations are great fun - even if you may feel a bit under the weather next day...

Eponymous heroine of a series of books by E. F. Benson, set in the era between the two world wars. Lucia is a middle-aged upper-middle-class housewife living in a small town in England, Riseholme (pronounced "Rhizome") that prides itself on its Elizabethan heritage. Lucia is known, locally as the Queen of Riseholme -- thin, stylish, with impeccable taste, her house is the most authentic (she has an all-Elizabethan wing, next to her Shakespeare garden that has not only all of the flowers in the plays, but bedded out as which play they're in), her husband, 'Pepino', is a poet of some note, and her skill at the piano (her signature piece is the "Moonlight Sonata", though she dislikes the last two movements...they "go faster") is only eclipsed by her fame as a speaker of Italian, with which she communicates with her best friend Georgie, a local painter somewhat light in the loafers (he paints young boys with dreamy expressions since he "can't do eyes well"). Her rival for social supremacy is the fat, ditzy, trend-crazy Daisy Quantock, who covets Lucia's effortless social acumen and fashion sense...and will do almost anything to steal her spotlight...

Breath.

These books are, to put it bluntly, hilarious, and anyone who likes "Absolutely Fabulous" will enjoy these. Lucia and her friends are vain, shallow, and full of weird quirks...and the situation only gets better when she goes on vacation to a similar town by the sea, called Tilling, where she meets her match, the redoubtable Miss Mapp. Oh, and did I mention she can't really speak Italian?

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