Many of us go along to carol services at this time of year but last night we went to something truly special at York Minster.
At the beginning of the Sankta Lucia service the lights in the minster dimmed to near darkness and from the back a procession of choristers carrying candles make their way through the congregation.
At the head of the chorister is Lucia, a young woman or girl bearing a crown of candles.
As they proceed the choir sing the Sankta Lucia carol which is a tune many of you will be familiar with. Their unaccompanied voices soared to the heights of the minster and it was a breathtaking moment.
Sankta Lucia or A Festival of Light is a merger of pagan and Christian traditions. According to the Julian calendar which was used in Sweden until 1753, the night between 12th and 13th December was the longest night of the year when it was believed extra protection was needed against darkness and evil. The custom was to eat and drink and to stay up all night.
December 13th is also the saint’s day of Lucia, St Lucy. The 4th century Lucia was martyred in Sicily for refusing to marry a pagan nobleman. She miraculously survived attempts to kill her and did not die until she received the last sacraments.
Lucia’s story and name became synonymous with its associations with light and the story spread via Germany and England to Sweden.
Lucia has a special place in the hearts of the Swedish people, and on December 13th a Lucia and her attendants appear in almost every home, school, church and office.
Her crown of candles may symbolise a halo and her red sash martyrdom. The tradition of Lucia processions spread to other Scandinavian countries and some Baltic countries.
Sankta Lucia is a family-friendly event held at York Minster in partnership with York Anglo-Scandinavian Society (YASS) which aims to promote friendship and understanding between Britain and Scandinavia.
Of course, there are strong historic and cultural links which York has with Scandinavia – the Vikings, The annual Yorvik Festival and the Yorvik Centre all pay homage to York’s Nordic heritage.
The choir taking part in the procession, Chorus Pictor, is from Stockholm and tours in Sweden and abroad. They were joined at by members of the YASS Lucia Singers who are Scandinavian and English girls from the York area. Members of Vaxholms gosskor (the Vaxholm boys’ choir), the ‘starboys’ in the procession.
In a distracting multi-media age where so much is commercialised it’s not always easy to find something original or authentic – and that costs nothing.
Sankta Lucia at York Minster is a wonderful experience in a magnificent setting and is a lovely way of taking time out from the headlong rush to Christmas Day.