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CHRISTMAS

As darkness falls, Swedes celebrate light

As almost round-the-clock night descends on their country in December, AFP's Rita Devlin Marier discovers that Swedes turn on their own informal celebration of light, in keeping with long-held traditions and to help cope with the darkest time of the year.

As darkness falls, Swedes celebrate light

Candles appear in the windows of homes, shops, offices and cafes throughout

Sweden from the start of Advent, on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, to the

end of December, when dusk can start creeping over Stockholm as early as 2pm.

Most of the time, Swedes light up the traditional “Adventljusstake” — or Advent candlestick — a multiple-branch candelabra often in an inverted V shape and nowadays lit by electricity.

But star-shaped lanterns are also common, as are straight rows of four or seven electric candles.

Such ornaments are often left on all night and through the day.

Sweden’s Advent window-dressing comes from a mix of customs dating back to the 1800s, Lena Kättström Höök, a specialist in Swedish traditions and curator at Stockholm’s Nordiska Museet, told AFP.

“It started with families, became more and more popular year after year and spread to the workplace and so on,” said Kaettstroem Hoeoek, who in a book on

Swedish Christmas said a study showed 92 percent of homes lit up their windows

during Advent.

Two hundred years ago there was only one candle put in the window on Christmas Eve through to Christmas Day.

“It was a protection against evil forces, it had some kind of a magical explanation, and was also a salutations of sorts” for people going to mass, Kättström Höök said.

No one knows exactly how the tradition of lighting up windows for the entire month of Advent emerged, but star-shaped lanterns and electric candlesticks began to be common throughout December in the 1930s.

In 1937, an employee at the Philips factory in Gothenburg had the idea of putting together seven of the electric candle-shaped Christmas tree lights the factory made: the Adventljusstake was born.

“It was a big success! There was already the old traditions of having lights in windows, and this was safe against fire and could be left on all night,” Kättström Hoeoek said, explaining how adaptation enabled the old tradition to survive.

While the celebration of light in Sweden can be seen throughout December, it reaches a peak on the 13th, Saint Lucy’s Day, in a celebration that comes from a mixture of traditions from Italy, Germany and Sweden.

Back in the 1700s the day was marked by a young woman, wearing a long white dress and a crown of lit candles, bringing in treats in the early morning.

In the 1920s, the feast became modernised, with Lucy’s morning procession including other girls wearing crowns and “star boys” with pointy star-adorned

hats.

Today, every school and day care centre in Sweden hosts such a procession on December 13. Many children put on the long white dresses, but only one girl is picked to be Lucy.

Saint Lucy’s Day concerts are also held in churches throughout the country, with choirs of children holding candles.

The melodies sung can be traced back to Italy, but they were adapted with Swedish words that reflect the country’s climate in mid-December.

“The traditions, they are alive and they mix together and they travel and come back,” the expert explained.

“I think they picked me because I am tall and blond,” said 12-year-old Fanny Haeffner, who was this year’s Lucy for the three concerts her music school presented at Stockholm’s Cathedral.

“You always have a Lucy procession in school, but I never thought I would actually be her,” she told AFP, after an hour of standing still and smiling during the concert.

Nowadays battery-operated Lucy crowns are found, but for the concerts Fanny had the real deal: no fewer than seven candles burning on her head, ignoring safety concerns for a true tribute to light.

The Lucy does not sing, but the 179 other children, all holding candles in the dimly-light cathedral, concluded the concert with the well-known “Sankta Lucia” song.

“Saint Lucy, make our winter night light with your beauty .. light up your white light, Saint Lucy,” they sang, before simultaneously blowing out their candles.

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WEATHER

Will anywhere in France get a white Christmas this year?

A white Christmas might be at the top of many people's festive wish list but will it actually come true for anyone in France this year?

Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in Orschwiller, eastern France.
Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in Orschwiller, eastern France. Non-mountainous parts of the country will not see snow this year. (Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP)

If you’re in France and have been dreaming of a white Christmas, you are probably out of luck. 

It has been freezing in recent days with temperatures falling to a low of -33.4C in Jura on Wednesday morning, but the cold spell isn’t going to last. 

Temperatures across the country will hover around the 10C level in most of France by the afternoon on December 25th according to Météo France, with parts of the country including Brittany and some parts of eastern France experiencing rainfall. 

By the afternoon on Christmas Day, the chances of snow look extremely limited. Source: www.meteofrance.com

On Saturday, there will be some snowfall, but only if you are high in the mountains at an altitude of 1,800-2,000m. On Sunday, places above 1,500m could also see snow – but this rules out the vast majority of the country. 

Roughly half the country will see sunshine over the weekend. The French weather channel said that this Christmas could be among the top five or six warmest since 1947. 

Last year, Météo France cautioned: “While we often associate snow with Christmas in the popular imagination, the probability of having snow in the plains [ie not in the mountains] during this period is weak in reality.”

One of the last great Christmas snowfalls, outside of France’s mountainous areas, came in 2010 when 3-10 cm of snow fell in Lille, Rouen and Paris. In Strasbourg, 26cm fell. 

On Christmas Day in 1996, 12 cm of snow fell in Angers – ironically, this was also the day that the film, Y’aura t’il de la neige à Noël? (Will there never be snow at Christmas?) was released. It had been ten years since France had seen such snowfall outside of the Alps and Pyrenees. 

Météo France directly attributes declining rates of Christmas snowfall to climate change. Compared to 50 years ago, even the Alps receives the equivalent one less month of snowfall per year. 

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