Swedish Christmas Customs
Immigrants to Kansas have always maintained customs from the Old Country in order to hold memories close at heart. Holiday observances usually echo practices from generations back. The Christmas celebration begins with Lucia Day on December 13, which according to the Old Style calendar is the longest night of the year.
According to legend, Lucia was a young maiden who lived in Sicily around the year 300. She became aware of Christians and their charitable work. After her mother was miraculously healed of a severe illness, Lucia became engrossed in Christian charity. She became so involved that she gathered food and supplies and began handing them out to the needy. At the time she was engaged to marry a wealthy nobleman. He became jealous when she spent more and more time with the charitable work and even began giving away their wedding gifts. Her greedy fiance became so angry, that he had her put in jail and condemned to death. Lucia escaped both torture and death by burning. Years later, after her death, Lucia was declared a saint. The word Lucia means light in Latin; whenever Lucia is depicted she carries a torch,and a luminous is behind her head.
It can be speculated that early missionaries from Ireland brought this legend to Sweden. These early missionaries preached in the western part of the country where the legend continued to evolve. One version tells the story of suffering and starvation on the western coast of Sweden. The story is told of how a large ship appeared with a white-robed maiden aboard. She was encircled by light and brought with her large quantities of food to distribute to the hungry. It was believed that no one but Lucia could bring such gifts.
There are recorded memories of Lucia day customs among the Swedes in Kansas. One account from around Dwight in Morris County recalls that it was the custom in some homes for the oldest daughter, dressed in a white robe and wearing a crown of lights, to serve breakfast to the family.
At one time in Kansas, the Christmas season meant a time when families dipped candles to be placed in the windows of Swedish American home. The candles were lit on Christmas morning. Special foods were prepared in honor of Christmas. Lutfisk (codfish), kringlor (rolls), ragbröd (rye bread), potatiskorv (potato sausage), sill (herring), bruna bönor (brown beans), köttbullar (meatballs), lingon (berries), ostkaka (pudding), and risgrynsgröt (rice pudding) was served.
Christmas presents were opened on julafton (Christmas Eve). Reading the Chrstmas story and singing traditional Christmas songs were also part of the custom. Early on julmorgon (Christmas morning) the family attended church.
Swedish American families in Kansas today continue to practice portions and variations of these time-honored traditions.
The Custom of the Ljuskrona
One holiday custom retained by some Swedish Americans in Kansas is the use of a special candelabra on the dinner table during the Christmas Eve feast. This centerpiece, called a ljuskrona by today's Swedish Americans, is a candle holder wrapped with cut paper.
The origin of the ljuskrona is unknown. the custom was at one time well known in Sweden. Ljuskronor were actually in use before the introduction of the Christmas tradition of the evergreen tree. One story links the custom of ljuskrona to torches tied to the masts of ships.
In recent times the ljuskrona has been linked to the story of Lucia. Beginning on Lucia Day, families would light candles to represent Lucia and brighter days ahead. Today some Swedish American families continue the practice of removing the ljuskrona from storage on December 13 to being the Christmas season. The candle holders are repaired and rewrapped and placed in the center of the dinner table where they remain until January 12, King Knut's Day.
Many ljuskronor were handed down through families for generations, and perhaps this is how the first ljuskrona appeared in Kansas. However, most ljuskrona currently found in Kansas were made in the New World. Immigrants only had room to pack necessities to make the long journey from the Old World to America, so family treasures oftentimes had to be left behind. However, family and cultural memories arrived safely in America. Fortunately, most ljuskronor were made at home, so families could replicate them after arriving in their new homeland.
A family's ljuskrona often took on sentimental value and held a wealth of family stories. One Kansas family owns a ljuskrona that has seen more than 80 Christmases. The family believes that the 10 candle arms were originally meant to represent family members. Space was made available to add arms if the family expanded.
Various styles and variations of ljuskronor have existed over the years. One design resembled a chandelier and was made to hang from the ceiling. The bottom tier of lights consisted of six arms, and the top group included four candle arms.
A more typical style of ljuskrona was made to stand on its own base. This style usually had an even number of candle arms on each level and could be rather large in size. some, when wrapped, appeared more tree-like, standing five to seven feet tall.
A third type of ljuskrona originated in Lindsborg and became known as the Tinner John type. The creator, John Johnson, was a local tinsmith who designed his ljuskrona with removable cups that caught dripping wax from the candles. His design consisted of horizontal rings encircling the candle arms. Tinner John made hanging types and eventually standing types using the same ring structure.
The base of the ljuskrona was usually made of wire, wood, and/or metal pieces wrapped and sometimes soldered to form the structure's shape. Candle cups consisting of metal cylinders or wire hoops, were attached to each arm to hold the candles in place. The entire base was then covered with strips of newspaper, cloth, and paper that were wrapped and layered very tightly to create a sturdy structure. The final layer consisted of crepe of silk paper in festive colors or all white. This paper was cut into narrow strips, then wrapped around the frame of the ljuskrona to create a delicate, lacy appearance. Because paper contains boric acid, the layers of paper would turn brown if exposed to sunlight. This made it necessary to cover and store the ljuskrona in a dark part of the home until it was brought out for the next Christmas season. Some families even built special air tight boxes in which to store their ljuskrona. Eventually the paper would darken and get worn, so the ljuskrona would be rewrapped to give it a fresh clean look.
Like all traditions, ljuskrona have changed over time. At least one family in Kansas added light bulbs shaped like candles to its ljuskrona in the 1930s. The family's ljuskrona is believed to have been made in 1872 and has been displayed in the front window of the same house since 1925. The present owner had the ljuskrona wrapped in plastic garland in 1985 because her health prevented her from rewrapping the frame on a regular basis.
It is interesting to note that the tradition of ljuskrona is now stronger among Swedish Americans in the United States than it is in Sweden. Ljuskronor were well known at one time in Sweden. however, the custom has declined and has been replaced by the more familiar evergreen Christmas tree. A few families in Sweden continue to produce these special candle holders.
Swedish Ljuskrona (PDF)
Traditions 1993 © KSHS
Entry: Swedish Ljuskrona
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: August 2012
Date Modified: June 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.