12 Songs for Christmas: Staffanvisan

Let’s recall that we embarked on 12 days of Christmas songs, unranked, and on the second day I premiered my new English-language lyrics for a Swedish tune that I first heard earlier this month. Here is that song, at one hour and seven minutes of this world-class concert by Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum’s band.

Here it is again, in a remarkably fine performance by students at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland.  

If you are the sort of person who has become wary about my suggestions because they seem too gloomy or ironic, this is your day to click without fear. I guarantee that these will be among the happiest songs you hear all year.  

A Case Study in North Americans Who Don’t Know This Song

I am amazed that I had never heard this song, despite being more steeped in Scandinavian traditions than most people in the US. Both my mother’s Swedish-American and father’s Norwegian-American families observe Scandinavian traditions, and I attended the ostentatiously Norwegian St. Olaf College. Lately I have participated in a fiddle camp led by Haugaard and sponsored by my Wisconsin community through its West Denmark Heritage Council. I attend to study guitar with Antti Järvelä, whom I believe is the cousin of Aili Järvelä, the producer of the Finnish version above. Thus Harald and Antti fall somewhere between friendly acquaintances and gurus for me. I knew I should prioritize the concert because I’ve heard them play many times—it is remarkable how they never fail to find the heart of any music they play and elevate it. Here is one of my favorite songs featuring Antti, playing bass. It is more perfection for a holiday celebration.   

I even have a daughter named Lucia—which naturally makes me pay attention to songs for St. Lucia Day, now including this one—although her name came from my spouse’s family which is not Scandinavian.  

None of this previously led me to the song. My beloved aunt was married to a Swede, but she tells me she remembers the song only from time spent in Sweden, not from hearing it in the US. So far she is the only person I’ve polled who remembers it at all (leaving aside her ex, who grew up in Sweden and is even named Stefan, whose song this is.)  

Helping Culturally-Deprived Americans Understand the Song

Enough about me. I’ve been making the point that if I’m in the dark, then there must be others who are equally in the dark about this wonderful music, which is a shame.  [Update: the same goes for another song from the concert, which I’ve now written about here.]

But it is the song that matters, and that is also the remedy for the shame. Let’s try to appreciate it more.  Although I am extremely far from an expert, still I have learned a few things from my aunt, her ex, and handful of websites including this one about St. Lucia Day, these Staffanvisan lyrics, and this wikipedia page.  I urge my better informed readers to enlighten me further and correct my mistakes.

On St. Lucia Day, a major solstice celebration especially in Sweden (and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Scandinavia, plus related Italian versions) there is a ceremony in which young girls dress as Saint Lucia, who is associated with light. They enter a ritual space (a church procession, a household ceremony) wearing wreaths of candles and often carrying special foods like saffron buns and cookies. There is a lovely song associated with this, which I know from its smallish circulation in the US, although I’ve never heard it sung live in any ritual context.   

Behind the Lucias with their candles may follow a procession of “star boys,” and “Staffanvisan” is a traditional song these boys sing. There are various tunes, and I have focused on the arrangement by Esjbörn Hazelius, who is the one playing mandolin and guitar in Harold and Helene’s concert.

There are also numerous possible lyrics that sprawl out in many directions. Often they culminate in feasting—so far, so good for my suggestion of new verses about a party, as part of a folk process that is not controlled by anyone in particular.

Standard versions start out singing something like this—my stab at a singable paraphrase of the first verse. (This is based on comparing translations, since I don’t speak Swedish.) 

Staffan was a farmer’s son
(We sing this song to thank him)
He fed his horses, one by one
(For following the bright star) 
Even though the world is dark 
We can find our way beneath the shining star

[Update: my friend Stefan Sylvander did a little better—he does speak Swedish after all!.]

Literally, the Swedish states that “Staffan was a stable-boy,” he waters five horses, “we thank him very much,” and there are stars twinkling in the dark—all of which is far better if you prefer precision that doesn’t fit the meter, rather than rhymes that do fit. I prefer the latter, but I don’t propose this as satisfying, only as my best draft so far. 

Following this are verses that discuss the colors of Staffan’s five horses, one of which he rides. Each time, we continue to thank him and to sing about twinkling stars in the dark of winter.  

There may be verses in which Staffan learns from the stars about Jesus’s birth, somewhat like the Magi do in the New Testament. Thus he comes into conflict with King Herod, who doesn’t like hearing about a new rival king from Staffan any more than he likes hearing this from Magi. A rooster cooking in a frying pan may come to life and fly away to prove that Staffan is telling Herod the truth.  

Alternatively, Stefan may also hunt a big bad wolf and a bear, to ensure that a party can begin in calm and safety. (Google’s translator helpfully offers “Now there is fire in every stove, with Christmas porridge and Christmas pig.”) After that, singers can improvise as many verses they want, as with the tune “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”— “Now bring us our figgy pudding,” “Now let’s open up our presents,” “Now let’s [fill in the blank],” etc.    

Of course the final part is what best matches my “Christmas Party” lyrics. But I am glad that my instinct (before knowing any words, even mediated by google) was to suggest a refrain “Later we can sing of pain/Come along with me and sing of joy today.”  Of course I would like to get the winter night sky into a singable English lyric, and it is tempting to improve and extend my “Staffan” verse. But, meanwhile, I think my pain/joy idea resonates passably well with the “still is dark” and twinkling stars in the original. Perhaps these words can help introduce the song to some people, thus advancing a folk process that surely can benefit from playing versions of this song. 

Today, though, definitely do not re-listen to my quick-and-dirty recording. Go for the hard-core virtuosic versions above.    

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it. 

2 thoughts on “12 Songs for Christmas: Staffanvisan

  1. Pingback: 12 Songs for Christmas: Christmas Party! | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

  2. Pingback: 12 Songs for Christmas: Dejlik Er Jorden (Beautiful is the Earth) | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

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