Xmas: St Lucy’s day … Dancing the darkness down…

A particular sub-species of Christmas entry for Clothes in Books: the feast of St Lucy and the Midnight of the Year

the book: All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman

published 2017

Off to the church and The Cloud of Unknowing. She’d left them in darkness last week but, at this time of year, the Middle Ages would have been ready to light solstice lamps. St Lucy’s Night was a festival of light, celebrated these days more in Scandinavian countries – Denmark, Sweden, with their long, long winters. In the third century, Lucy had brought food to Christians hiding in the catacombs, wearing a wreath of candles around her head to light her way, leaving her arms free to carry more goodies. Reminded Merrily, slightly uncomfortably, of the crown of lights worn by women in certain witchcraft ceremonies.

comments: It seems impossible, but is apparently true, that I have never before covered a Phil Rickman book on the blog, although one of the books was mentioned in this blogpost on boy bishops. I LOVE his Merrily Watkins series, and I think the reason for the blog neglect must be that they are true relaxation reads for me, and I don’t want to take notes and look for pictures. (Even though they are very visual books, AND he is good on clothes.)

But I also love a mention of St Lucy’s Day – see this 2016 post about the near-miraculous John Donne poem on the subject: sad and opaque and yet speaking to us across the centuries.

And this book is very firmly set in dark December days, with some pretty dark goings on in Merrily’s rural area in Herefordshire. She is a local vicar, but also the Deliverance expert, which means she looks into inexplicable supernatural happenings and satanic sightings. The plot is – as in all the books – a mixture of very modern life, and local history, and some very violent crimes, and a long hard look at the possibility of there being more to life than what you can see and feel and prove for yourself.

The books are an absolute treat, and I don’t know why they are not better-known.

They are set on the border between Wales and England, and the border, and differences between the two nations, feature a lot. My Christmas Day poem last year was by RS Thomas, a Welsh clergyman and poet, and blogfriend Roger Allen recommended a biography of him – on the bizarrely unlikely grounds that it was hilariously funny. This seemed so odd (Thomas was famously grim and grumpy) that I had to read the book – The Man Who Went into the West by Byron Rogers – and it is an exemplary biography and is indeed hilarious. Or, as a former Archbishop of Canterbury described it, ‘riotously funny’. And the descriptions of places and people did remind me of Phil Rickman’s books – you could just imagine RS Thomas popping up to harass Merrily and forbid her from entering his church (which his wife might well have painted black inside.) Highly recommended.

All of a Winter’s Night also features morris dancing. I once wrote a blogpost called Morris Dancers Just ARE funny, but not in this book they’re not: they are weird and terrifying and deadly serious.

There is also a form of Green Man

(This Green Man picture is by Lauren Raine and is from Wikimedia Commons.)

This entry (by the guest blogger Colm Redmond) is about a book featuring such folk customs, and well worth a read.

Gladys Mitchell always likes folk customs, and Ngaio Marsh went there in Off With His Head (Death of a Fool) – also set around the Winter Solstice. All these posts have fascinating pictures of dancers and mummers.

Now, St Lucy’s Day – I found a very helpful official Swedish cultural site, and they explained about the annual candlelit Lucia procession on 13 December, with girls and boys clad in white full-length gowns singing songs together - I will quote it at length:

White gown, stars and candles
: The real candles once used are now often battery-powered, but there is still a special atmosphere when the lights are dimmed and the sound of the children singing grows as they enter from an adjacent room.
Tradition has it that Lucia is to wear ‘light in her hair’, which in practice means a crown of electric candles in a wreath on her head. Each of her handmaidens carries a candle, too. 
The Lucia celebrations represent one of the foremost cultural traditions in Sweden, with their clear reference to life in the peasant communities of old: darkness and light, cold and warmth. Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters. 
The many Lucia songs all have the same theme:
The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

All Swedes know the standard Lucia song by heart, and everyone can sing it, in or out of tune. On the morning of Lucia Day, the radio plays some rather more expert renderings, by school choirs or the like. The Lucia celebrations also include ginger snaps and sweet, saffron-flavoured buns (lussekatter) shaped like curled-up cats and with raisin eyes. You eat them with Swedish mulled wine (glögg) or coffee.

Doesn’t that all sound nice?

Happy St Lucy’s Day.

Top picture: St Lucy by Cosimo Rosselli - circa 1470

Long thin Saint Lucy by Carlo Crivelli - circa 1430

(sadly, the website I found these on seems to have disappeared, so I cannot give the links)

The drawing is from the Swedish culture site.


  1. I can't believe I've never heard of this one, Moira! I need to read some RIckman, clearly. Funny how some authors just don't get the 'press' that others do. It's always fascinated me how so many of our traditions have that bit of 'otherworldliness' to them. It does make you wonder just how much of it is real, if any. And this one looks very interesting, with a good sense of place (always a winner with me).

    1. Yes Margot, I think you've summed up their appeal, and I do think you would enjoy Phil Rickman's books.

  2. I love the Lucia celebrations. When my children were younger and living at home they used to bake the saffron buns and the ginger snaps the night before and then give me and my husband breakfast in bed early on Lucia morning, singing the traditional songs to us. This year my grown-up children and I baked the ginger snaps and the saffron buns together yesterday evening and were up before 7 this morning to have tea and coffee, the baked goods and lots of lighted candles (NO electric light on Lucia morning) before the 7 o'clock live TV broadcast of a Lucia celebration with a rather good choir. It is usually done in a packed church, which would obviously not happen this year, so we had worried a bit, but it was solved beautifully: the whole thing was televised out of doors with the members of the choir at a Corona distance of 2 metres between each person in the north of Sweden, with frost and snow and even reindeer in the background. Lucia and her maidens had white fur coats on top of their white shifts (and no doubt plenty of thermal underwear beneath). It was beautiful and I cried as usual.

    1. Oh that is wonderful, thanks so much for sharing that with us - how lovely to hear about the real deal from you. I'm not surprised you cried, I'd be in floods...

  3. I love St Lucy's day. Thank you for this. My darling Swedish friend Ann always used to celebrate it. She had long blonde hair and smiling eyes and we watched absolutely breathless as Mick lit the little candles in the wooden wreath she wore. It sounds ridiculous, but it was very beautiful.

  4. I don't know why I love and seek out Christmas books, when we don't celebrate much at all, but I do. Maybe memories of childhood.

    I think the Phil Rickman books I have to read with a large break, because in the 2nd one I got tired of Merrily dithering about decisions. But they are appealing in ways. Have you read all of them up to this one?

    1. I think it's nice to have something to celebrate in the dark winter months - I guess it's not so cold and dark where you are? But still something to enjoy.

      I have read all of them, I believe - there will be a new one out next year.

  5. Lovely post, Moira. I love the idea of St Lucia's day and managed to include a mention of it in one of my novels.

    1. Yes, and reading the descriptions above made me wish we did it here!
      Remind me which of your books it was?

    2. Invisible - the one that takes place partly in Stockholm.

  6. I always like to tie artworks back to their collections if I can. The pleasant Rosselli is in the San Diego Museum of Art, enjoying the Southern California climate, no doubt. The Crivelli (not perhaps the greatest example of his crystalline style) is in the Petit Palais, Avignon. https://www.petit-palais.org/musee/fr/voir-la-collection-les-peintures-italiennes/collection/les-peintures-italiennes/tri-par/siecle/et/xv/page/29. Thanks for another nice post.

    1. Thank you for the links! As I say above, the website I used to find art images seems to have disappeared during lockdown, so the links I had with the post don't work any more. Very glad to be able to offer people a way to find them.

  7. Not an author I've ever heard of before and probably one I can blissfully remain in ignorance of.

    1. His books may not be at the top of your list, but you might find more to enjoy than you think! There is a spooky, horror side to them that you might like...

  8. My post either never made it or vanished, as you said. I think I said that being "grim and grumpy" goes alongside self-importance as a cause for humour and gave examples - Mr Pooter, Malvolio, Eeyore perhaps - and mentioned Herbert Read's The Green Child and Randolph Stow's The Girl Green as Elderflower a "green man" stories.
    You'll get this twice now!

    1. I don't know what happened there, but thank you for re-doing it, and yes, splendid suggestions.

  9. I read the first book in this series and am surprised (upon checking) both that I didn't go back for more and that he is up to #14! I had forgotten it is set on the border in Herefordshire where I have actually been! One unusual thing I did there was visit several Elinor Brent-Dyer sites although I am not really much of a Chalet School fan, but someone had given me a map so why not.

    There was a Swedish author called Karin Anckarsvard whose children's books were sufficiently popular not only to be translated when I was young but also some were in paperback, and I was a big fan. She wrote one book called Rider by Night in which (as I recall) the heroine was supposed to participate in a big St. Lucia's Day event on horseback but is injured before it takes place. It was quite fascinating.

    1. I have made a few trips around the Herefordshire area, and always think of the Merrily books, but didn't realize there was an EBD connection, I am intrigued - I was a big fan of her books.

      Don't know the Swedish author, but the books sound good.


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