Early December at 59 degrees North. It’s cold, windy, and gets dark at 3 o’clock.
It is a long winter here in Orkney, and in the depths of December and January we are lucky to get 5-6 hours of daylight. Of course, there are the compensations of the Aurora Borealis, and the Milky Way, but we are always very grateful when the solstice is by and the days start to eke out gradually.
It is no wonder that peoples living in far northern latitudes are aware of the sun’s journey throughout the year. In prehistoric and later times, knowledge of the seasons would have been crucial to survival; knowing when to sow seeds, what time of year fish migrate and so on. In the endless days of summer it is much easier to go about your business, but when the days are short and dark it take extra energy to get out of bed in the morning.
Many Nordic countries and regions celebrate the feast of St Lucy on 13 December – for she is Lucia of the Light, and she brings the light back into the darkness. Originally from Sicily, her story has been embraced in Norway, Denmark and Orkney.
Every year (pre-COVID), in the Saturday after the start of advent, St Magnus Cathedral plays host to the Treelighting Ceremony and St Lucy Procession. We are blessed in Kirkwall in that we receive TWO Christmas trees as gifts from Norway – London, of course, can only boast one. The two Norwegian trees are cut down and transported to Orkney every year – one to stand inside the cathedral, and one outside on the Kirk Green. This latter is the one that is lit during the ceremony. Visitors from Norway come over to take part, and in their native folk dress they bring Nordic colour to the event. There is a lot of community involvement, and it is one of the biggest events in the year featuring the local people. It is open to all and you must come early if you want a seat!
The Kirkwall City Pipe Band play outside, then the council’s ceremonial Halberdiers lead the dignitaries in procession across from the Town Hall. A choir from the local Primary School (usually decked in tinsel) take their places on the rostra and the cathedral minister welcomes us all, followed by a jolly carol.
Then the lights are dimmed and the church falls into darkness and silence; there is a wonderful atmosphere of expectation and excitement. A movement at the west end, and the St Lucy procession begins. The children’s choir sings the Hymn to St Lucy as a small group of local youngsters processes slowly down the aisle. Central to the group is St Lucy herself, wearing a gown of stars and crowned with a coronet of glowing candles. Even though, in this safety-conscious age, the candles are battery-operated, it is still effective. Lucy is flanked by attendants in sparkly cloaks, and elves in red felt hats. The congregation stays quiet as the procession moves down the nave in time to the music. Behind her, the faint glimmer of coloured lights starts to grow brighter. The song ends and Lucy climbs the pulpit to deliver her poem, where she exults the heavens to shine forth ‘one thousand thousand Christmas lights, to make the darkness BRIGHT!’. At that moment, all the cathedral lights are thrown, and the medieval building is filled with bright light, as Lucy and her attendants rejoice that the dark times are over.
This simple ceremony takes only a few minutes, but it is strangely powerful; in the half light it is as if we are between worlds, suspended in time and space as Lucy weaves her magic.
The story of St Magnus is well-known in Orkney, and this time of year is significant to his tale. After Magnus was murdered in 1117 on the orders of his cousin, he was buried in Birsay, in the north-west of Orkney Mainland. Tales grew of his holy powers as a holy man, and in 1135 he was declared a saint. His relics were translated (exhumed on his elevation to sainthood, and moved to Kirkwall) on 13 December – St Lucy’s Day. In medieval times both his death date (16 April) and his translation date were both celebrated as his feast days.
Lucy and Magnus are now forever bound together, bringing light into the darkness of an Orkney winter.