Interview with Daniel Hansson about corona edition of Luciatåg (Saint Lucy’s day in Sweden)

Daniel Hansson is the conductor of the university ensemble called Malmö Akademiska Kör (in English Malmö Academic Choir) based in the city of Malmö in Sweden (read more here about the ensamble and here about Daniel Hansson). He kindly answered my questions about last years celebrations of St. Lucia (the 13th of December) that his ensamble approached in very clever and playfull way so they could observe the pandemic regulations but at the same time preserve the tradition in some way.

In what words would you describe the celebration of St. Lucia?

St. Lucia is very popular holiday in Sweden. There are these special gingerbread cookies you eat and also the famous saphron buns, which are made especially for this day – they are called lucia buns. Traditionally you start eating them on this day and then you continue with eating or baking them til Christmas (read more about Lucia celebrations here).

There is also this tradition including nobel price winners – because just few days before the St. Lucia holiday we have the Nobel Price Ceremony (more information here). So for many many years now there is this tradition in Stockolm that the winners of the price are woken up by the St. Lucia herself. So they are usually staying at the Grand Hotel and during the morning od the chant St. Lucia comes to their rooms and wakes them up with her singing. While some of them can be astonished by this ritual, others can also be taken by suprise and even scared by this scenario (Daniel laughing). The image of St. Lucia coming to your dark room with lights in her hair can be of course a bit frightening.

The fact that St. Lucia celebration is so big and popular around all Sweden is a bit strange, because we are protestant country – but we really love to celebrate this figure of St. Lucia who is a catholic saint. But in reality it is of course connected to a lot of different customs and so it is a combination of several traditions. One is of course about the saint woman Lucia. The other is about Staffan “the stable boy”. Are you familiar with this myth? There ara of course many narratives about Staffan and his deeds, both in pagan and christian context of medieval Scandinavia. For this moment it is important to stress out primarily that this saint figure is connected to horses and the Betlehem star/stars in general and that the mediaval tradition built around Staffan in Sweden eventually took form of a habit of riding on horses from one household to another during Christmas time and singing songs and carols. (You can read more about the legend here, explore the connection to stars here or discover the typical songs here.) Throught the intricate web of symbols and connections this cutom then joined the Lucia lore, so nowaydays is the St. Staffan „stable boy“ perceived as a companion of the female saint, and so the procession of maidens belonging to St. Lucia is accompanied by the male counterpart of „star boys“.

I personally think that it is very suitable for the swedish sentiment, especially the act of bringing the light during the darkest night of the year.

How does the celebration of st. Lucia night normaly look in relation to your ensamble?

Celebrating the St. Lucia with singing is very popular, it is the things that old choires do – they reach out to hospitals, companies etc. and go to these places to sing as the St. Lucia procession.

The members of our ensamble normally participate in lots of events during the St. Lucia celebrations, usually it is around 20 or 30 concerts. The biggest and most popular event takes place in the church of St. John (see more here) which is the largest church in our city. This concert is enormously popular and attracts many people, who usually sit inside as the choir enters the building and sings while walking. So normally we (as the choir members) meet thousands of people during these events. But last year we also managed to meet at least some people and spread some joy in a safe way.

How did you come up with the idea of using electric bycicles?

We were facing the situation of not being able to gather – during the time there were restrictions for meeting of 8 people and more, so we could not have concerts, meeting of big groups or any assemblies. And then the chairman came up with the idea that we might just use this new vehicle in our city. You live in Prague right? Do you also have this electric bycicles in your city? Well, most people hate them (Daniel laughing), they are everywhere. So, as we already mentioned, the tradition is that St. Lucia comes to you, it is not like you could come to her – so the procession is a very important feature or characteristic of the whole ritual. And when St. Lucia arrives to you, she sings you songs about her arriving and bringing you the joy in the form of the light and songs. So in spirit of this our idea was: we keep the procession, but we never arrive. We will simply keep moving and will never stop – so nobody else can stop (and gather) either. Of course that means that people will hear only a very little, but they will hear us coming and then something like 5 or 10 seconds of the song as we pass by. So we basically used the old processional ritual of horse riding (part of the St. Lucia tradition as we stated earlier), only we used electric bycles.

Was it a challenge to ride and sing at the same time? Did you need to practice for that?

We chose couple of songs that seemed easy to do while riding the vehicles, mostly because of the limited comunication between the singers, the distance, speed etc. Then we tried it once if we can actually do it – and then we did it.

How did it go? How was it for you?

The largest part of the enjoyment of this tradition is to actually hear St. Lucia coming – that gives you the joy of knowing that it is on its way. And that part we preserved, people heard St. Lucia coming and singing. The rest which is the main singing part was shortened, it took only few seconds, so in this part we compromised. Also you know that St. Lucia is going from place to place, she sing for you and then goes to visit someone else and bring joy to another place and people, which we also kept in the performance. So in my opinion it turned out very well.

I did not participate myself – I am the conductor of the ensamble and you really do not need a conductor when people are going on electrical bycicles. But I have watched it from distance and I must say that it was really touching to see people being moved. Also I noticed the unexpected joy of hearing christmas music that is live! I think that live performance is very important when it comes to singing and to enjoying cultural experiences. The music comes to you from mouth of the singer to your ear – in this sense it is direct connection, transfer of the waves coming from vocals through air and then hitting your ear drums as actual connection. For me it is like a audio caress.

Why do you think it is important to try to have some kind of cultural events and performances during these pandemic times? Why not just skip them, why try and find a way how to adapt to lockdown rules?

I think that even though things are the way they are, it is important to do something and to try to preserve life – and rituals and traditions are one part of making it feel little bit more like „normal“ – I mean not really normal, because everyone know that things are not normal right now, and also the celebration of St. Lucia was not really „normal“ either, because she does not ride bycicle. But we really wanted to show people that we care about meeting them, that we care about bringing music to them and we care about establishing some connection to real life, to the joy of music making and listening. And if this was one way to do it, then why not?