Santa Lucia: A celebration of light against the dark days of winter

Photo by Claudia Gründer

Every year, the Scandinavian community celebrates, among other traditions, Santa Lucia on December 9. Elinor Barr, a researcher on Scandinavian immigration to Canada and author of Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants, shares her thoughts on Swedish-Canadian history.

Born in Ignace, Ontario to Swedish parents, Barr, 84, lived in Port Arthur and Fort William, where she worked as a registered nurse. After attending Lakehead University, Ontario, as a mature student, she became a research associate of LU’s Lakehead Social History Institute.

Barr’s research took 13 years and draws on a lifetime of experience. Her book, the first comprehensive overview of Swedish-Canadian history, describes the many facets and aspects that make up immigrants’ lives.

“I spent much time at [the University of British Columbia’s] Special Collections. They have the largest collection on Swedes in Canada. Did you know that Rudolph Verne brought skiing to Vancouver? They built Hollyburn Lodge in 1926, and it took 19 men to bring a piano over the rough trail. Now it’s part of the Cypress Ski area,” says Barr.

Trolls, wild beings and Santa Lucia

According to Barr, the Canadian woods are home to all things extramundane such as trolls, which have long been on the Canadian conscience. They have always been responsible for all sorts of inexplicable shenanigans in our surroundings.

“Santa Claus is a troll. The Swedish-American Haddon Sundblom was quite familiar with trolls. Our modern version of Santa Claus derived from his annual paintings from 1931 to 1986 advertising Coca-Cola,” she says.

Barr says that the popular Santa Lucia pageant is a good example of how customs can evolve over time. Matt Lindfors organized Canada’s first public Santa Lucia function in Vancouver in 1936, with 14-year-old Ruby Arnesson as Lucia. She wore a long white gown with a red sash around her waist and was crowned with a wreath of lit candles to symbolize the return of light.

Cultural and economic influences

Barr mentioned how assimilation and “Anglo conformity” were the accepted goals for early Scandinavian immigrants to B.C. The school system, in particular, was designed so children could one day “be like the English,” which was the stated ideal.

Santa Lucia’s celebration comes from stories that were told by monks who first brought Christianity to Sweden.
| Photo by Jonathunder

The integration process has always been one of mutual influences, says Barr, most visibly manifested in commerce and physically demanding work. Local Scandinavian endeavours included the first European expansion of the salmon fishery by Icelandic fishermen.

“The Thulin brothers founded the Swedish community of Lund [B.C.] in 1889 and Campbell River in 1904. They built a wharf and sold fresh water, salted salmon, repaired boats, opened a sawmill and then built hotels like [Campbell River’s] Willows Hotel,” she explains.

In 1872 Sweden’s Eric Anderson jumped ship into the Salish Sea, walked ashore, cleared the forest and built a cabin that stands preserved today as Surrey’s oldest remaining pioneer-era home, right next to the Surrey Museum.

Ever since the first European contact, the Scandinavian community has been an integral part of B.C.’s cultural fabric.

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