Skip to main contentAccess keys helpA-Z index
You are in: Home > Community

At the darkest, coldest time of the year

Why would anyone want children? They scream; they smell; they demand all your attention. They wreck your house, bring home unsuitable friends and eventually spend all your money (you reading this, Lucy?). You won't be surprised to learn that I never wanted children. My wife, however, had other plans.


The day she told me she was pregnant was the start of nine months in a bad mood. I was the least supportive father-to-be you will ever know. It embarrasses me to remember it now. The day Lucy was born, however, was the day I became a man.

Sorry if that sounds a bit over-dramatic and un-English, but as she spiralled into the world, like a little sausage out of a sausage machine (what a romantic I am!) everything changed.

I lived in Sweden for four years during the 1970s then commuted there, from London, for another twenty. As Lucy was growing up I got involved in children's literature and started a PhD on Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish children's writer, whom we met a couple of times. I translated one of the Pippi Longstocking stories into English. Lucy's second name is Astrid, after Astrid Lindgren. Her first name also connects her with Sweden, and this time of the year.

At the darkest, coldest time of the year Swedes celebrate the beautiful festival of 'Lucia'. Back in 1973, when I was a young man with more on his mind than in it, I taught English in a small-town high school in southern Sweden. I knew nothing about 'Lucia' then (I knew nothing about anything then!). Imagine my surprise when, at about five in the morning on 13 December, there was a knock at the door of the little wooden cottage where I lived. It was -20 Celsius outside, there was a metre of crisp snow and the black sky glittered with a million wintry stars.

I rolled out of bed, more than half-asleep, onto an icy floor, and fumbled for something to wear. Finding what I thought was a towel I wrapped it around myself and opened the door. In fact, I had wrapped myself in the bedside rug, but never mind. I couldn't believe my eyes. I stood there, shivering and holding onto the bedside rug very carefully, and was confronted by a host of tall, blonde, Swedes in long white dresses, each holding a lighted candle and singing an unearthly song: I thought I had died and woken up in heaven. Without a word, they stepped past me, gathered around my kitchen table and poured out fresh coffee by candlelight. They had spicy ginger biscuits, too. And then their strangely familiar 'leader' (Lucia herself), wearing a crown of lighted candles and a bright red sash, spoke: "Hi, Stephen. Happy Lucia!" I thought I was dreaming.

But it wasn't a dream. It was my class of 17 year-old students (the boys were dressed in white costumes with pointed hats). They had got up early, packed the home-made biscuits and fresh coffee, and set off around the town to visit all their teachers to wish them "Happy Lucia!" from the Queen of Light and her Starboys. What a lovely tradition.


It's a tradition we have celebrated in our family ever since Lucy was born. This will be the first time for eighteen years that the house will be empty and silent at five o'clock in the morning on 13 December. Somehow I don't imagine Lu will be awake at five in St Andrews. If it wasn't so far away I'd drive up and surprise her, but I don't suppose I'd be very welcome at that time of day. By the way, I was joking: Lucy never screamed. OK, she was a bit smelly (some things don't change, then) but she wasn't demanding or attention-seeking or anything other than absolutely lovely, always, but don't tell her I told you so. If you're Swedish or Lucy - or even if you're not - Happy Lucia!

Have fun - wherever you are and whenever you can!

Take care,


ruin; spoil; badly damage

man whose partner is pregnant and who, therefore, will become a father

makes (me) ashamed

moved forward with a turning motion

travelled to work

got involved in
started to work with

Doctor of Philosophy degree; doctorate

with more on his mind than in it
This expression suggests that I was worried about things I didn't understand; that I was preoccupied with concerns ('on his mind') but not experienced or knowledgeable ('in it' [his mind/brain]).

adjective from 'winter'

searched for clumsily because (I was) unable to see clearly (in the dark)

small carpet

crowd (poetic word, usually used about a crowd of angels)

a long narrow piece of cloth worn around the waist, usually as part of some kind of uniform or formal clothing

This topic has now closed. Thank you for all your comments.

Jill Huang, Beijing
Stephen, I'm suffering a sour throat followed by a bad cold. Miss You! Take care!!

Saber Salem, Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan
Hi, Stephen! I read your nice and interesting text about your duaghter and your current feelings towards her!I wish you and your cute Lucy all the best and success in life.

Dear Stephen,I found your story really interesting and amazing.I don't know how you deal with a situation which crops up.Not many people have this talent and ability to control themselves,i my self proved really weak in this sence whenever i am in difficulties i loose patient and get panic and i don't know what i'am doing.There is a great lesson in your story for people like me.I wish all best for you.

InHak, Korea
Today is the day!! 13 December,I'm waiting for my Lucia, my son Who is in USA for study and supposed to be home tomorrow for winter vacation.The day he was born, was the day I got universe !! Thank you Stephen.

Mari, Russia
hi Stephen! I must compliment you for your style, your articles are easy-reading, thought provoking and very interesting! I am writing a comment for the first time here( I’m "fresh" in this site). I am a linguist and because of that very interested in different language "formations", at this point I liked your comparison of a baby with a sausage. For some readers it might seem rude, but I think your choice of words is well understandable. Men and women naturally have different attitude towards having babies, for a girl it is the last stage of turning into a woman, so she feels a real necessity to bring a baby physically, for a man this looks more like a “big problem”, the problem that screams at night, makes you spend money on it, letting alone the real “obstacles” it creates in access to a wife while she is pregnant! But everything changes when that little creature appears to this life… so finally such a metamorphosis happened to you and there is nothing left to say except CONGRATULATIONS! At the same time it makes me think what my own husband is thinking about having babies…. But I am pretty much sure we are both looking forward having them, though a little later. Children are the flowers of our life and make it more beautiful and complete. So, I guess me and my husband have good “seeds” to grow the most beautiful “flowers”!As for the festival I remember I have known about it from a small pamphlet that was attached to the small bottle of a perfume I bought, which by the way was called Lucia. Personally I think this festival in Sweden has nothing to do with the one in Spain or Italy, Scandinavian countries have different history and its holidays have different roots. But itself the festival is very romantic and nice. I respect the nations and people in particular who cherish their traditions!WITH BEST REGARDS AND MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Klaus THOMAS, Germany
Brilliant, Stephen.Thank you!

Shankar, Singapore
Really emotional story, How you manage to cope up with such fast pace of changes ? Everthing surpirse ! Surprise !! & Surprise !!!

Iris, Germany
Dear Stephan! Do you know what the difference is between you and other men? Youhave become a man earlier than other men in a similar situation. And now you are the best DAD and your pretty sweet Lucy Astrid loves you and she will love you although you will not wake her up at five o’clock in the morning on 13 December in St Andrews.By the way, I suppose you are an English man with Swedish soul, aren’t you?It would be very interesting hearing your impressions about a great Astrid Lindgren, whose books with the lively and fascinating stories are very popular in all over the world.Happy Lucia! Have a nice time, Iris

Christine, Germany
Hello Stephen,what a nice story. I know St.Lucia from the Books of Astrid Lindgren. When I was a child I've read them all, I loved especially " The children of Bullerbü" Nowadays my daughter, although she is 14 years old, reads the books again and again.Have a good time, see you soon...

Doug from Brazil
Stephen, what a lovely story!It's the first time i hear about this 'Lucia Festival'. It seems nice! I'm also a teacher and I think it would be nice to be awaken by my students in such a pleasant way!Good Bye

Sayaka, Japan
Hmm. "Lucia" festival? I never heard of it. On that day, only an unselfish teacher like you are given a special treatment from their students? People in other professions or nasty teachers get nothing? I suspect Queen Lucia has some connection to teaching, does she?In Japan, the God called "Tenjin" is said to be "the God of education and learning". People who intend to sit for some exams go to his shrine (Yes, our god is male) and pray for their success. That's good Lucia herself bothered to come to your place instead of your going to her! So generous.

Leila, Finland
What a lively topic you chose Stephen. As you said Saint Lucia´s Day is approaching. Although the day is not celebrated as widely as the day of Santa Claus, the day is so very uplifting. The singing of Lucia girls is pure and beautiful. Our Christmas festivity begins with Saint Lucia´s day. It marks, together with Advent, the beginning of the Christmas season. In my opinion it is a pity that traditionally an important feast day in all of Western Christendom, it now retains traditional forms of celebration mainly only in Scandinavia and southern Europe. To my knowledge it is celebrated in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Italy, Bosnia, Iceland, and Croatia. As we live here in Northern Finland almost in an absolute darkness during this time of the year, it is good to enjoy the small pleasures of life. Nothing is better than get up at the crack of dawn and listen some good music letting your thoughts fly away and maybe for once not to be so merciless on yourself. Wishing you and your love ones a happy Christmas time! P.S. I was happy to hear you knew Pippi Longstockings. I grew up with Pippi and yes maybe it is fair to say that she has influenced a radical side that lives in me.

Sehar, Pakistan
Hi,Stephen.What a hearttouching story!It was really very interesting.I have read your column for the very first time,but i enjoyed every line of it.Natural,simple and very cute.Wish you a very happy Lucia.Bye

Hu Bo
Thank you for your fantastic blogs!In here,I know that everyone in this planet is exactly the same when they are using English to communicate with each other.

Anna, Latvia
Really children change our life,Stephen. After my son's birth my life was full of light. About traditon of Lucia - I wonder how candles are put on the crown. May it is worth to visit Sweden to find it out.

I never liked Pippi Longstocking.

Carme, Barcelona (Spain)
This is the firs time I read this column and it trapped me. All this nordic traditions are magic to me. The cold, the darkness and the smooth seem a special way to live this time. Very distant from the spanish "fiesta"

Shri Sri Lanka. Batticaloa
We mostly use the term commuted travelling allowance for claim. But here you said that commuted mean travelled to work. So can't we use both jointly commuted and travelling?

Walaiporn, Thailand
Hi!! I love it. You might be the only Dad I think is special.

Anna, Italy
What lovely memories, dear Stephen! And Lucy is always there, even before being born. In fact it sounds as if she was (were?), in some way, with you also in that freezeng morning of so many years ago....Best wishes to both of you from an Italian Lucia (second name).

sumitha S.L
Thank you for your question and answer

Tanya, Bulgaria
Oh, Stephen, it is very exciting story. I want to write you something more but it is 6 o'clock in the morning and I hurry to work.

Stephen,New Jersy,USA
Hi Stephen :)happy lucia to you and your lovely sausage!

Kirsti, France
What a wonderful blog, Stephen! What touched me most was surely when you 'became a man' but it was also so nice to hear about the Lucia celebration and Astrid Lindgren, both having been part of my childhood, though not Astrid Lindgren in person as in your case, only her books. Is Lucy able to speak Swedish?

Martina, Italy, Verona
Hi Stephen in Verona, Italy we celebrated Santa Lucia! In the tradition Santa lucia is blind and in the night between the 12th and 13th of December she goes in all the houses to bring presents to the children, but if you were bad she would bring only coal. Furthermore in one of the main street of Verona (it's an ancient Roman city)there's an arch and the 13th of December the sun falls down in the middle of the arch and is the shortest day in the whole year. I really enjoy your column.

Maitane,Basque Country
We have been discussing at length how it is possible for one person to commute between Sweden and England for as long as twenty years. Could you explain it to us so that we are able to answer some comprehension questions on your text.Thanks

Inta, Latvia
Yes!Nice and emotinally!When will come that day when I start to speak and write in English like you? With more on her mind than in it- it's what I'm feeling!Thanks!

Pary from north part of Iran
Hi Stephan, Happy Lucia? Please not be upset of being away from your dear Lucy, You can just make a phone call in the 5 am or simply you can sent a message to lucy 's mobile phone. I really enjoy the story of your first lucia 's day. At first I think, you just kidding. About the miracle of love. Before of being a mother, I don’t like Kids for myself and I used to like to be their aunty but after being a mother, the longer he grows up, the more I love him, yes I think it’s a miracle of life. By the way, with running up to Christmas I 'm remembering your late Blogs, last year. I learnt lots of your interesting tradition and now I'm more familiar with them. I can’t wait for your next article. Have a nice day and send my Kiss to Lucy .

Habooba, Ahwaz
Marhaba Stephen, It is the first time ever I hear of such tradition, many thanks, it's so beautiful. Like Amin I was keen to know the history behind it. So if you allow me I copy & paste the inf. I found in SWEDEN.SE "The Lucia tradition can be traced back both to St Lucia of Syracuse, a martyr who died in 304, and to the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam’s first wife.It is said that she consorted with the Devil and that her children were invisible infernals. Thus the name may be associated with both lux (light) and Lucifer (Satan), and its origins are difficult to determine. The present custom appears to be a blend of traditions."

Manjusha, India
So Stephan the Great Great teacher I have ever seen. Happy Lucia. My all friends decided to celebrate Lucia but certainly not at 5 a.m. in the dawn. We are going to visit our friend's house with fresh coffee, ginger buscuits and lots of candles. Last month we celebrated festival of lights with lots of sweets, guests, gifts and crackers. This year we had lightened up our home with 100s candles to celebrate arrival of our newborne niece Chinmayi.

Choi, Philippines
Hi, Stephan again ! I think you are a very nice father in the world. I think it is very rare to meet A father like you in the world and to read such an article as warm, witty. It also reminds me the very love of my parents. Thank you so much. In addition, I hope I could describe my view about my life and job like you and I could keep in reading your lovely world.

Arthur Lau of Hong Kong
Whoo! A sausage machine! Stephen, you did it this time. Wait until my wife reads this column of yours. She may not let me read your column again, or anything from BBC at all. This could be another " Teddy Bear" incident.

Sam, Armenia
Thank you Stephen for brilliant article. My girlfriend`s name is also Lucy, so i`m sure she will love this story!!!

Wuisi, Spain.
I had more on my mind than in it! I'll try not to forget it because it describes exactly what we are like before having a baby. I couldn't agree more with that bit. Parenthood has made me realise what life is about. Lovely!.

Naheed, Pakistan
Hello Teacher, yummy! Ginger biscuits and coffee, sounds delicious. I wish you and Lu Happy Lucia, too! Naheed

Amin, Iran
Hi Stephen, it was a nice story. Traditional celebration usually have got a history behind, Could you tell me what was it in this case?

Renata, Lithuania
Hello, Stephen, thank you for your columns! You saved my life! You see, I teach English (one -to -one) and I came across your columns on the day I felt I'd run out of all resources. My student (in his late 40s)is finding it a very hilarious form of study. Good luck!

Rosa, Mérida (Spain)
Hello Mr. Stephen I have reading your column and I think is very interesting. In Spain in many town is celebrated "Saint Lucia". She is patroness of the blind.(I am not sure if in this case I can use "the blind´s patroness)Is very lovely the word "the day I became a man" to refer the fact became father.Sorry for my English. I am try improve it. Thanks for your minds. Happy Lucia ¡¡¡

Soyeon kim, South Korea
Hello, Mr.Stephen. This is the first time to leave comments. I came across your column on the middle of October. I'm poor at English, I want to share in your column, and I take a courage to write down. You are a good father.After your daughter is in a university, you look lonely. I have a 5-year-old daughter. She is now young.After she grows up, she'll leave as if I left my parents.Her name is 'Dasom' meaning love. I want her to love and to be loved by all around her. I get to know that The older my daughter, the maturer I. I wish you happy Lucia.

Anastasia, Russia
I very much hope my future husband will never compare me to a sausage machine!!

Jinok, South Korea
Another good column for those waiting for yours, thanks a lot, Stephen! A baby from sauage machine, I adore your description of this. Yes, I witnessed my little nephew was born he was a reaaaaaally ugly, I couln't imagine he was a human, you know. All of the body was wrinkled and rumpled. After two or three months, babies are starting to look gorgeous and so cute, they are so adorable, aren't they?

Ana Paula, Brazil
Hi Stephen!How lovely story :-). I bet Lucy on December 13th will awake at 5.00am thinking about you and Lucia´s festival. So, Happy Lucia for you too :-). Good bye, Ana Paula.

Marianna, Slovakia
Happy Lucia, Stephen! I wasn´t wrong when I had assumed your swedish students might not forget such a pure, unimpeachable and very harmless teacher, was I? You are the lucky one being such a wise man now. That is in one hundred percents rewerse in my case, being more lost than ever,ha,ha!I´ve just tried a phone call to Bratislava and Liptovský Mikuláš where my nephewes should have been studying hard as I supposed. One felt actually bored, another playing computer games payed any attention to me. To kill the emptiness (may be any in one room with ´paintings´ in each possible corner) and silence I would choose any documentary on TV with soft-spoken speaker´s voice. I don´t suppose this will be convenient to your exclusive taste, though. Yes, we have nice old ´Lucia' traditions in this country and it is one of my nieces name, too. And to cheer you up here is my story how I googled your name in January, curioused about what books you might have written. The result was always Harry Stephen Keeler - a dead man! I´ve tried it just now again - there are YOU with that 98 metres long bar! Hurray!

Fraçois, France
Hi,it's a ery nice and lovely story. I enjoy it very much and I would like very moch going in Sweden to have fun during a happy Lucy period. I ope you will apologize my bad english. bye

Helasiri Nawalage, Sri Lanka
Thank you. Mr.Stephen, Every fortnight you add value to our self. Today you told us the feeling of becoming a father. "the day I became a man" I think this is something that we all should thought about.

Stephen Keeler
Stephen Keeler

pdf download logo PDF version (52 K)

 Stephen's Columns

 Other Links
blue arrow Learning English blogs