She dresses in a special white dress with a red sash. On her head, she places a crown made of evergreen leaves. In it are set five white, lit candles. Carefully balancing this, she then takes a tray of coffee and cakes called Lussekatts or "Lucy cakes" (baked the day before) upstairs to the rest of the family.
This is how Swedish families celebrate the festival of St Lucia, just before Christmas, only nowadays the burning candles are often replaced by battery operated electric lights. This ceremony happens not only in Swedish homes - schools, offices and towns sometimes choose or elect their own Lucias.
Many believe this is done in memory of St Lucia, who was an Italian, possibly Sicilian, Christian girl living in the 2nd century. Because Christians in the Roman Empire were persecuted then, they met to pray in secret. Lucia, it is said, carried trays of food at night to their secret meeting places. So that her hands were free to carry the food, she wore lights on her head to help her see.
It is a matter of debate whether the Swedish custom reflects this story.
Others say the tradition was brought to Sweden in the 17th century by Protestant Germans who had settled there. For them, the girl chosen to be Lucia represented the Christ child who delivered Christmas gifts in a way similar to St Nicholas, who was supposed to visit Dutch towns just before Christmas (St Nicholas or Sinterklaas being a precursor of Santa Claus).
Pupils could list ways in which "light" figures in the Christmas story and in related customs and discuss why Christians refer to Jesus as "the light of the world". Younger pupils could elect their own St Lucia and enact the ceremony. (In many places, Lucia has a retinue of followers.) Her crown could be made from card, gingerbread biscuits could serve as Lucy cakes and homemade Swedish flags could be used as colourful decorations.
An account of the Swedish tradition is available at www.serve.comsheagermusalucia.htm
For the words (in English) and music of a traditional St Lucia song, visit home.pcisys.netdon_ericksonlucia.htm