12 Songs for Christmas: Staffansvisa

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 in a 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. This will be among the most joyful songs you hear all year.

A Case Study in People Who Don’t Know This Song

I am amazed that I had never heard this song, despite being more steeped in Scandinavian tradition 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 our local West Denmark Heritage Council. I attend mainly to study guitar with Antti Järvelä, whom I believe is the cousin the producer of the Finnish student’s version above. So Harald and Antti fall somewhere between friendly acquaintances and gurus for me. I prioritized their 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 on bass–more perfection for the holidays.   

I even have a daughter named Lucia—which naturally makes me pay attention to songs for St. Lucia Day.  

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

Helping the Culturally-Deprived Understand the Song

Enough about me. The point is that if I’m in the dark, there must be others equally in the dark about this wonderful music. (The same goes for another song from the concert, which I’ve written about here.]

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

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

Behind the Lucias and their candles may follow a procession of “star boys,” and “Staffansvisa” is a traditional song they sing. There are various tunes, but we have been following the arrangement by Esjbörn Hazelius, who is the one playing mandolin and guitar in Harold and Helene’s concert.

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

Standard versions start out singing something like this—a crude stab at a rhymed paraphrase close to the literal meaning 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

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 and so my “Christmas Party” verse doesn’t use any of this directly.

[Update: my friend Stefan Sylvander did better with precision—he does speak Swedish after all—although I believe he is thinking about a different form of the tune.]

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

There are versions in which Staffan learns from the stars about Jesus’s birth, like the Magi do in the New Testament. Thus he may come into conflict with King Herod, who doesn’t like hearing about a rival king from Staffan any more than he likes hearing it 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, Staffan may hunt a big bad wolf and a bear, to ensure that the party can begin in safety. (Google’s translator helpfully offers “Now there is fire in every stove, with Christmas porridge and Christmas pig.”)

Then singers can improvise as many verses they wish, 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.    

All these lead back to the refrain about following stars even though it still is dark. I am glad that my first instinct for my “Christmas Party” words for this tune (before I knew any Swedish lyrics, even garbled by google) was “Later we can sing of pain/Come along with me and sing of joy today.”  I would like to get the winter night sky into a singable English lyric. But, meanwhile, I think my pain/joy idea resonates passably well with the “still is dark” and twinkling stars in the original. So I hope my version can help introduce the song to some people, advancing a folk process that surely can benefit from paying attention to this song. 

Today, though, do not re-listen to my quick-and-dirty recording. Go for the 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: Staffansvisa

  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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