As Christmas approached in 1966, a couple of months after I joined EFTA, a Swedish-Finnish colleague, Helena Wirtanen, asked me to be Sankta Lucia in an office celebration she was planning for 13 December, a week away. 13 December originally coincided with the winter solstice, the day darkness lasts longest, but there was a discrepancy in the calendar and when this was corrected centuries later, Saint Lucy’s Day was not moved to 21 December, the current solstice. This was convenient for celebrating Sankta Lucia at EFTA, as most of us had gone back to our home countries by then for at least a week at Christmas.
The tradition is that one person is chosen to be Sankta Lucia. Helena wanted me to parade down the long corridor between our offices, wearing large lighted candles on my head, and singing the first verse of the saint’s hymn. It didn’t matter that I had never done any singing except in the privacy of my own bedroom; Helena was a singer and she and our Austrian colleague, Erica, would be my handmaidens and sing along with me. There could be no argument as I was the only one of the young women staff who had long blonde hair, which Helena considered essential.
I knew the tune from the famous Italian Santa Lucia (where this day is also celebrated) but Helena had to teach me the Swedish lyrics to the hymn and how to pronounce them. She wouldn’t let me carry anything during the performance so I had to learn the words by heart, and somehow I have never forgotten these words learned nearly 60 years ago!
Sankta Lucia, ljusklara hägring, Sprid i vår vinternatt glans av din fägring. Drömmar med vingesus under oss sia, Tänd dina vita ljus, Sankta Lucia
Which, roughly translated, could be sung in English as:
Santa Lucia, vision of brightness, Spread in our winter night your shining lightness Send dreams on swirling wings with prophesy, ah Light your white candles now, Santa Lucia
In the event, having to sing was less terrifying than balancing the circlet fitted with tall white candles on my head as I walked. Helena put a white sheet around my shoulders and tied it with a red sash, then lit the candles and counted down as she pushed me towards the dark corridor. We started to sing and it sounded fine. I think our three voices blended well, though the fires above me wobbled ominously with every step I took! Other staff members came out of their offices into the corridor clapping, and joined in the second time we sang the verse – Swedes, Finns, Danes, and the Norwegian head of the EFTA Economics Department Per Kleppe, who was later to become the Labour Finance Minister of Norway and ensure that Norwegians benefitted directly from their north sea oil through a sovereign fund.
Joined by Welsh, English, Portuguese and Swiss economists, they all went on into the meeting room where we always met for morning and afternoon coffee (no one drank tea!) and took their seats while we sang one last verse from the doorway. On the table were special Sankta Lucia biscuits baked for us by Helena. Delicious! A lucky lad from Ronda, near Malaga, married Helena and they moved to Spain, so 1966 was the only time I experienced that Christmas festival of light.
It was a joy to be involved.