Although Saint Lucy was an Italian Catholic martyr, her saint day is particularly heralded in Scandinavia, where ‘Lucia' is portrayed as having a stereotypical Nordic appearance and long blonde hair. However, the Swedish take on the saint has come under fire from the public, who assail her Nordic alter-ego and insist that the country's population is becoming increasingly eclectic and 'norm-critical'.
While the newspapers used to be teeming with images of happy girls vying to become Lucia, the tradition of Lucia-themed pageants is en route to becoming history, as more and more organizers elect to cancel events as untimely.
"Girls just do not want to compete in beauty pageants," Lena Kättström Höök, ethnologist and intendant at the Nordic Museum and the author of "Lucia in a New Light" explained to national broadcaster SVT. "Issues such as appearance fixation and passive gender conformity weaken the competition. Many choose not to participate at all," she added.
Lucia pageants have dominated Sweden since the late 1920s, when such a contest was first organized in Stockholm, and have been frequented by ladies in the still predominantly blond Nordic country. Lucia was perceived as the ideal woman, being young, blond, beautiful and innocent.
Over the years, though, Lucia pageants have been increasingly taken over by concerts, where somebody from the choir was elected Lucia, usually via lottery.
"The public interest began to decline already six to eight years ago. Before that, people were applying in droves. Unfortunately, I believe that the tradition slowly disappears from of the minds of young people, organizer Per Eckeborn told SVT.
In some parts of Sweden and the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland, though, the pageant still has a solid ground. On the island of Gotland, seven candidates are vying to become this year's Lucia, although newspapers made it crystal clear that it is not a contest in beauty.
In Finland, a national Lucia contest is held by the Public Health NGO, the Hufvudstadsbladet daily and national broadcaster Yle, alongside a charity collection for vulnerable families.
Last year, the Swedish department store Åhlens unleashed a heated debate with its ad featuring a dark-skinned child, whose gender wasn't at all obvious, dressed as Lucia. Åhlens's Facebook page was flooded by comments questioning why a boy of color was chosen to represent Lucia. Later, Åhlens chose to retract the ad.
Saint Lucy's Day is celebrated on December 13, commemorating Saint Lucy, a 3rd-century martyr who according to legend brought food and aid to persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs, using a candle-lit wreath to light her way. The story of a young girl bringing light became particularly popular the Nordic people suffering from lengthy periods of winter darkness.