We arrived in Stockholm seven years ago, in early October 2009, just as Autumn was displaying her finest colours. I remember standing in a queue at the iconic Swedish home store, IKEA, watching the people buying tea-light candles by the dozens.
Coming from sunny South Africa, I was greatly puzzled. As far as I was concerned, tea-lights were used to perform a specific function: to keep a tea- or fondue pot warm, to decorate a dinner or wedding table, or similar festive occasion, or to float in a vase with flowers, or to accompany a luxurious bath.
Watching the customers buying tea-lights in such great quantities was strange indeed. I could not help but ask the woman in front of me the reason for these purchases, afraid that there was something from which we were missing out. She was as puzzled by my question as I was about her hoard, and she informed me that these tiny candles are used to place around their homes. This still did not explain the need for such quantities…until I came to live here, and experience my first long and dark Swedish winter.
The Scandinavians use candles in a number of decorative ways, and rituals, throughout the winter months, beginning with Advent, a month before Christmas.
The Advent candle stand traditionally holds for four tall candles, the first of which is lit on the fourth Sunday before Christmas – Första Advent (the First Sunday of Advent). Each of the three Sundays thereafter another is lit, until all four are lit, illuminating the way for the coming of the Christ Child.
Scented tea-lights give much pleasure; my favourite is vanilla. For several hours these tiny lights infuse one’s home with a delicate scent, cast their magical glow, and create a warm and cosy atmosphere. Tea-light containers come in many different shapes and sizes, and are beautifully decorative, especially when made of coloured glass.
Here in Sweden tea-lights are placed in the windows where they shed not only a comforting light within, but a welcoming glow to passers-by without. It is an enchanting sight, especially at Christmas time!
During the winter, shop-owners place large red paraffin candles in tins outside their doors. These are designed for outside use only, and are a custom stemming from an older tradition designed to entice customers inside. It is their way of saying: Varsågod, Vilkommen! (If you please, Welcome!)
The electrical pyramid-shaped, seven-candle holder is the most popular festive decoration on display from the 1st of December every year. There is almost no window – including offices – without these decorative affairs. En masse they present a cheerful, awe-inspiring sight.
The origin of these lights apparently stems from an experiment conducted by a young Swede working for Philips during the 1930’s. Each year I await the appearance of these festive pyramid-lights in the windows, and each year they fill me anew with childlike delight, and the eager anticipation of Christmas celebrations just around the corner!
At the same time, large red or white cardboard stars are also displayed in the windows, each lit with a tiny globe. This custom came from Moravia, in the old Czech province, where it was customary to hang stars of paper, straw of wood in the windows as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem. These stars are also available as standing lamps, and are placed on the window sills of Swedish homes.
Santa Lucia Day is celebrated here in Sweden on the 13th December. She is the bringer of light at a time when Sweden is at her darkest. This formerly religious festival is celebrated in the work place, clubs, churches, factories and schools. One young girl is given the honour of representing Santa Lucia, and she is attired in a long white robe with a red sash, with a crown of seven candles upon her head.
Groups of scholars can be hired for a Lucia celebration. Beginning with a procession in which each young person solemnly walks with a lit candle, whilst singing the traditional Santa Lucia songs. After a short performance, coffee, cakes and peperkakor (spicy biscuits) are served, along with the traditional lussekatter – saffron buns with currents, shaped like figures-of-eight, or “cats”.