Every December, a young woman wearing a crown of candles appears on the steps of Queen’s Park, followed by an entourage of white-clad attendants called tarnor (maids) and stjamgossar (star boys). The woman represents Saint Lucia, who died a Martyr’s death in 304 A.D., and according to legend, reappeared in Sweden with food for the starving during a great famine. Toronto’s Lucia is chosen by the Swedish Church, which then arranges the annual entourage that also appears at the Swedish Christmas Fair at Harbourfront and various sites around the city. The celebration of Saint Lucia’s Day reveals the presence of a Swedish community estimated to number 5,000. Toronto is home to the largest concentration of Swedish and Swedish-affiliated companies in North America, reflecting the thriving trade relationship between Sweden and Canada.
During the latter part of the 19th century, Swedes were attracted to North America for its land opportunities. As early as the 1870s, a number of Swedes migrated to the Canadian West. Some moved to British Columbia for its milder climate and job opportunities, while others settled in Northwestern Ontario, working as farmers or in the lumber industry. Following the Second World War, a large number of Swedish businessmen, engineers, and representatives of Swedish export industries came to settle in Toronto.
Swedish cultural activities are centred around the Swedish Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Swedish Lutheran Church, and the Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA Toronto). An annual event arranged by SWEA Toronto is the Swedish Christmas Fair at Harbour-front. The fair is held during one weekend in late November and features Swedish Christmas music and carols, handmade Swedish crafts and Christmas decorations, a children’s Christmas workshop, and Swedish delicacies such as open-faced sandwiches and glogg (hot mulled wine), as well as the Saint Lucia Pageant with folk dancers and children’s tableau.
Several interest groups are organized by SWEA, including weavers and other craft artists and a folk-dancing troupe which performs regularly in Toronto. Proceeds from traditional events hosted by the organization are used to promote Swedish culture and education, such as a scholarship fund which provides financial support for a student/teacher exchange program between Ontario universities and universities in Sweden.
WALPURGIS, April 30, is a joyful festival marking the arrival of spring. In Sweden, the day is celebrated with parties, bonfires, dancing, and traditional singing.
THE OFFICIAL NATIONAL DAY OF SWEDEN is June 6. The holiday was formerly called Flag Day, commemorating Sweden’s official flag, which was created in 1663. For Swedes living in Toronto, National Day is celebrated with a reception hosted by the Swedish, in addition to a special service and reception held at the Swedish Lutheran Church.
MIDSUMMER DAY, celebrated on the third Friday in June, is the festival of the summer solstice. In Sweden, families gather to pick flowers and summer foliage for the decoration of the traditional midsummer pole (Maypole), around which musicians lead dancing, singing, and children’s games. In Toronto, festivities are organized by the Swedish Lutheran Church.
WINTER SOLSTICE. Since prehistoric times, Swedes have celebrated the winter solstice. According to the Julian calendar, this date was December 13, which later became the name day of the Catholic Saint Lucia. The celebration of the return of light to a northern country now coincides with the commemoration of Lucia, who suffered a martyr’s death in 300 A.D. for her Christian beliefs. Before being pierced by a soldier’s sword, she miraculously withstood the flames of the pyre where she was sentenced to burn to death. Lucia is believed to appear every December 13 in the early morning, dressed in virginal white, with a blood-red sash, the mark of her martyr’s death, and wearing a crown of candles, symbolizing the flames that did not touch her. Lucia celebrations take place in Swedish homes, schools, and workplaces. Women dressed as Lucia serve coffee and traditional breads baked with saffron and raisins, and traditional songs are performed. The Swedish Canadian Chamber of Commerce arranges an annual Lucia Luncheon for its members and Canadian guests.
CHRISTMAS. Family Christmas celebrations take place on December 24 on Julafton (Christmas Eve). Christmas dinner consists of Lutfisk (dried cod, soaked in lye, cooked, and served with mustard and white sauce), ham (cured in salt and sugar and then boiled or cured), red cabbage, dip-in-the-pot (an ancient tradition of dipping bread in the broth from the ham), and rice porridge (tradition says that singles who get the blanched almond hidden in the dish will be married within a year). Following dinner, the family awaits the arrival of Jultomten, the Christmas gnome who brings gifts. Carrying a big sack, he knocks on the front door and awaits the answer to, “Are there any nice children around?” On Christmas day, there is the Julotta, the traditional morning church service.
KYRKONYTT NEWS (Tel. 416-486-0466, 25 Old York Mills Rd), and calendar of events published quarterly by the Swedish Lutheran Church.
Swedish Christmas Fair at Harbourfront Centre.
SWEA TORONTO (SWEDISH WOMEN’S EDUCATIONAL ASSOCIATION INTERNATIONAL), (Tel. 416-922-8152, www.swea.org/toronto). The Canadian chapter of an international cultural and networking organization; promotes Swedish culture, history, language, education, and heritage. Its largest annual event is the Christmas Fair at Harbourfront Centre.
TORONTO SWEDISH FOLK DANCERS AND SINGERS, (www.tsts.ca).