Paint a Door on the Wall

Ever since grade school, Lucia has been one of my favourite feasts of the year. To an outsider, a chorus of children (and/or adults) in long, white gowns holding white candles and singing together might seem more than slightly peculiar. Particularly so starting at around 6 am in the morning.

Strange or not, for me there has been something singularly magical about the Lucia celebration for as long as I can remember, and I can’t put my finger on what it is.

Honestly, though, the ’why’ and the ’how’ are not really important. What is important is the importance Lucia has to us, what it gives us and how it brings us together every year in the darkest time of the year. (December 13th was the darkest day on the Northern Hemisphere according to the Julian calendar.)

The chairwoman of the Swedish Writers’ Union Grethe Rottböll describes Chinese-Swedish writer and publisher Gui Minhai’s poem ”Lucia” as one of few poems that relates to the Lucia tradition while simultaneously revitalising it.

It is a potent poem, heavy with meaning and intent. Gui’s skillful use of simple, everyday words to paint vivid images and evoke not only powerful emotion but also lingering reflections on life reminds me of what I enjoy so much about Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry.

Here is a short excerpt from Gui Minhai’s ”Lucia”, translated by me:

I lie in the bathtub of the night, as if resting in pitch-black Ginnungagap
Every day is the 13th of December, the shortest day, the longest night
Beside the sun, an infinite world of ice
On the opposite side, a chaos of fiery, crackling stars
Where the ice and fire meets a poisoned spring erupts
Deception and mist harden into a malicious giant
I lie in the giant’s shadow, waiting on death
Time wraps itself tightly around my throat

Isn’t it beautiful? This is one of the poems Gui has written since he was imprisoned by the Chinese government in 2015. These poems were published individually in the Swedish paper Expressen and then, two years ago, in a single volume.

I remember six years ago, I had been in an accident on the highway that partially demolished the car I was driving – my first own car – but which fortunately left me physically unharmed. Two days later, I sat in the audience watching a Lucia procession at the Kapellsberg School of Music, and started crying silently in my seat.

The juxtaposition of being inches from death a couple of days before, and the present comfort and security of the music, the people and the tradition which I love so dearly hit me like a proverbial ton of bricks.

To be frank, not all Swedes are as enthusiastic about Lucia as I and some of my friends are. (Not even my fiancée, regrettably, shares my enduring love for this feast.) And to an outsider, the importance of Lucia to an imprisoned Chinese-Swedish writer and publisher is probably hard to understand.

But for all of us who look forward to the 13th of December a little more than others, who get something in our eyes when we hear the first notes of a particular Neapolitan barcarolle, we know.

Most of us do not know what it’s like to be imprisoned. But Gui Minhai’s evocation of Lucia as a beacon of light in his prison cell rings true in more ways than one (again, my own translation):

I paint a door on the wall with my finger
On the threshold I paint a beautiful girl dressed in white, with candles in her hair
I think of hot mulled wine and ginger snaps
I think of my daughter singing for me in the early morning,
Convinced that the darkness eventually shall be banished from the earth and the valleys,
That a bright round sun shall rise on a pink-hued sky
Like a knife, the Lucia melody cuts open uncountable wounds in my memories
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Composer, arranger and songwriter for performance, recording, broadcast and interactive media.