Though the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, it is not the date of either the earliest sunset or the latest sunrise. The earliest sunset occurs around Little Yule, 13th December, and the latest sunrise around New Year at the beginning of January.
In Sweden the Christmas season begins with St. Lucy’s Day, and as such, is sometimes referred to as ‘Little Yule’. It is thought that to celebrate the day with vigour will help a person live through the winter days with enough light. In the home, the oldest daughter rises first and wakes the rest of the family. She is dressed in white with a red sash, and wears the nine-candle wreath, though her younger sisters will just dress in white and carry a single candle as they take breakfast to their parents, with hot coffee and lussekatter (‘Lucy cats’ i.e. yeast rolls). For the day, the girl is called Lussi (Lucy) or Lussibruden (Lucy bride). The family then eats breakfast in a room lighted with candles.
Saint Lucy or Lucia (‘Light’) was said to be a Christian virgin who refused to marry a Pagan and was martyred for it. In one version of her tale, her eyes were pricked out prior to execution, in another version, her suitor praised her beautiful eyes and she plucked them out and sent them to him. She is often pictured with her eyes on a plate beside her, and became patron saint of the blind. Whether an actual person called Lucia ever existed or not, the saint seems to have taken her mythology and characteristics from local Pagan deities, and thus is seen differently in different regions. In Italy it is likely that she acquired attributes of the Roman goddess Juno Lucina or Lucetia, the Mother of Light who also carried a tray and a lamp, bestowing the gifts of light, enlightenment and sight, who was also known as the opener of the eyes of newborn children. In Scandinavia she seems to have taken on characteristics of the goddess Freya who was known as the Vanadis, or the shining bride of the gods. The lussikatter (Lucy cats) or the golden saffron rolls that are served at this time in Scandinavian countries are said to be the devil’s cats which Lucia subdued, and the cats were pictured at her feet; cats were also associated with Freya and pulled her chariot. Freya’s special season was Yule when she dispensed wealth and plenty. The traditional shape of the rolls is a crossed shape where the arms are rolled inward and in the curve are bright pieces of fruit or small candles in the form of a solar wheel. Lucia may also have some aspects of the Norse Sun-goddess Sunna, whose emblem is the fiery wheel.
St Lucy’s Eve was a mysterious and dangerous time in many parts of Europe, a time when witches were thought to be especially powerful. In Britain, witches and fairies would kidnap anyone who went to bed without any supper. In Lower Austria witchcraft was feared and had to be averted by prayer and incense; a procession was made through each house to cense every room. On this evening, too, girls were afraid to spin lest in the morning they should find their distaffs twisted, the threads broken, and the yarn in confusion. Between Lussi Night and Christmas, trolls, ghosts and evil spirits were thought to be active. It was particularly dangerous to be out during Lussi Night. On St Lucy’s Eve in Scandinavia, candles are lit and all electrical lights are turned off, and the Lussevaka (‘Lucy Wake’) vigil is held, staying awake through the Lussinatt to guard the household against evil. It was also a time when the future could be divined. In Austria a mysterious light called Luzieschein (‘the Lucy-shining’) was observed by boys outdoors at midnight, and the future could be foretold from its appearance.