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Motion Detector Nr. 10: Who’s (Not) Allowed to Be Lucia?

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

In its "Motion Detector" the MEK displays objects from its collection that are relevant to current topics. This time the focus is on Sweden, where the feast day of Saint Lucia is celebrated on 13 December. Numerous concerts featuring the figure of Lucia will take place on that day. Dressed in a white gown with a red ribbon and wearing a crown of candles on her head, Lucia is celebrated as the bringer of light in the dark winter.

Is it an old tradition? By no means. It was not until the 20th century that this originally West Swedish ritual, which evolved from various (pre-)Christian and secular customs, spread throughout the country. Today just about every daycare centre, every school and every city has its own Lucia choir, with children feverishly awaiting their performances as Lucia, a star boy or a gingerbread man.

But who’s allowed to be Lucia? In 1928 the newspaper Stockholms Dagblad turned the selection process into a beauty contest. For decades it would characterise an ideal of a blond, Nordic Lucia - although Saint Lucia is thought to have lived in Sicily - that was based on the malicious racial ideology gaining ground during that period. The subject remains a controversial public issue in Sweden. When 14-year-old Astrid Cederlöf’s role as Lucia was featured in a television broadcast in 2012, she was exposed to racist commentary because of her dark skin. In 2016 an ad of the department store chain Åhléns used the image of a young boy as Lucia. It set off another wave of outrage – because of his sex and his skin colour. That motivated other Swedes – both with and without migration backgrounds – to acts of solidarity in the internet: Under the hashtags #JagÄrLucia (I am Lucia) and #JagÄrHär (I am here), they presented a diverse image of Lucia and of Swedish identities. Even the Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke, the daughter of a Swede and a Gambian, posted an image of herself as Lucia. Rickard Söderberg, a gay tenor, took a stand for men’s rights on Instagram in 2017, when he stood up for the belief that men should also be allowed to personify Lucia.

Rituals are always subject to change, there is no “original version” that permanently defines the process and its manifestations. Whether a girl or boy, whether short or long-haired, blond or brunette, young or old, gay or hetero ‒ everyone should be able to celebrate 13 December as Lucia.