Published: 18-03-2010, 05:02

St. Lucy’s Day

In Sweden the CHRISTMAS SEASON begins on December 13, St. Lucy’s Day. St. Lucy’s Day celebrations feature girls who dress and act as the saint. Crowned with wreaths of GREENERY studded with glowing candles, they sing songs about St. Lucy and distribute GIFTS of food. In North America, some Swedish families, churches, schools, and institutions also celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. ITALY, the country of Lucy’s birth, honors her feast day as well.

St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia, lived in Syracuse, a town on the Italian island of Sicily, during the late third and early fourth centuries. The many legends of her life vary somewhat, offering accounts of some or all of the following events.
Although Lucy was a Christian, her great beauty attracted the attention of a pagan nobleman. He pursued her but she rejected him. When he told Lucy that her beautiful eyes “haunted him day and night,” she tore her eyes out and sent them to him, hoping to be left in peace. God restored them in recognition of her willing sacrifice, however. In another effort to escape marriage, Lucy distributed her dowry among the poor. This act so angered her suitor that he informed religious authorities of her adherence to the then-illegal Christian faith. The authorities demanded that she perform a sacrifice to the pagan gods. She refused and was sent to a brothel. When this attempt to punish her failed, she was taken to prison. She again refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods, whereupon she was condemned to death. The first attempts to execute her failed as God again intervened on Lucy’s behalf. The guards sent to fetch the girl from her cell found they could not move her. In an effort to carry out their orders they put ropes around her, then set the floor on fire. When neither of these tricks enabled them to move the saint, they stabbed her in the neck. It is believed that she died in 303 A.D.

Scholars agree that the legend of St. Lucy contains more fiction that fact. Nevertheless, her cult flourished in Syracuse as early as the fifth century. In the sixth and seventh centuries it spread to the Italian cities of Rome and Ravenna. Eventually her fame stretched across EUROPE, and she became one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. Artists often depicted her carrying her eyes in a dish or holding the palm of martyrdom and a lamp. Some portrayed her with a sword thrust through her throat. People invoked the aid of St. Lucy for afflictions of the eyes and throat.
Although her feast day currently falls on December 13, before the sixteenth-century Gregorian calendar reform (see also OLD CHRISTMAS DAY), St. Lucy’s Day fell on the WINTER SOLSTICE. Legends claimed that the saint blinded herself on this, the shortest day of the year. In fact, her name, Lucia, comes from the Latin word for “light,” lux. Thus, many old folk customs invoked Lucy as a symbol of light, especially the light that coincides with the lengthening of days after the winter solstice.
St. Lucy’s Day is especially celebrated in the country of her birth, Italy, and in Scandinavia. How did this Italian saint develop a following in the land of the Vikings? When the people of the cold, dark North converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D., they acquired a special fondness for the saint whose feast day marked the return of the sun and whose name itself means “light.” Over the centuries they kindled many flames and fires in her name. At one time people in northern Europe lit “St. Lucy’s fires” on the evening of her feast day. They threw incense into the flames and bathed in the smoke, which was said to protect one from witchcraft, disease, and other dangers. While this was happening, others played music to accompany the sun’s changing course. An old Scandinavian custom forbade all turning motions on St. Lucy’s Day, including spinning, stirring, and working a grindstone. Superstitions warned that these circular motions might interfere with the sun’s change of course.
Folk belief also hinted that miracles occurred at midnight on St. Lucy’s Eve. The few souls awake and alert at this potent hour might hear cattle speaking or see running water turn into wine. In past times many believed that the saint had the power to shorten the winter season. This belief led to the custom of writing her name and drawing a picture of a girl alongside it on doors and fences in the hopes that the saint would hasten the end of winter. Another old custom encouraged people to keep a candle burning in their home all day long on her feast day.

In Italy St. Lucy is called Santa Lucia. St. Lucy’s Day is observed throughout the country, but is especially honored in Sicily. The day has traditionally been celebrated with bonfires, processions, and other illuminations. In Sicily St. Lucy, dressed in a blue cloak showered with stars, brings GIFTS to children on the eve of her feast day.
Children leave their SHOES outside on St. Lucy’s Eve in order to collect her offerings. Sicilians also remember the miracle that St. Lucy performed when famine struck the island. According to legend, hunger had weakened so many that the people of Syracuse went as a group to the church to ask the saint to deliver them. While they were praying, a ship loaded with grain sailed into the harbor. For this reason Italians celebrate St. Lucy’s Day by eating a boiled wheat dish called cuccia or cuccidata. Lucy is the patron saint of the Italian cities of Syracuse and Milan.

In Sweden today, St. Lucy’s Day, or Luciadagen, marks the beginning of the Christmas season. The family celebrates this day in a special way. One daughter acts as the “Lucy bride.” She gets up very early and prepares coffee and buns for the family. These buns are called Lussenkatter, or “Lucy cats.” She dresses in a white robe with a red sash and carefully places a WREATH of ligon berry leaves and lit candles on her head. Attired thus as St. Lucy, she brings the simple breakfast to each bedroom, awakening family members with a song about the saint. According to old traditions, this St. Lucy’s Day breakfast should be served very early in the morning, between one and four a.m.
Varying traditions suggest that the oldest, youngest, or prettiest girl perform this role. The other girls in the family may follow her, dressed in white robes and crowned with tinsel halos. The boys may participate as starngossar, or STAR BOYS. They also dress in white. In addition, they wear tall, pointed hats made of silver paper and carry star-topped scepters. These Swedish customs have spread to Finland, NORWAY, and DENMARK.
Over the years many other folk beliefs and customs also attached themselves to St. Lucy’s Day. Old folklore in rural areas advised farmers to thresh all the grain from the year’s harvest by St. Lucy’s Day. The season’s spinning and weaving were also to be completed by that day. Other traditions suggested that farmers slaughter the Christmas pig (see also BOAR’S HEAD) on St. Lucy’s Day and that cooks bury the lutfisken, a traditional Christmas fish, in beech ashes on St. Lucy’s Day in order for it to be ready by Christmas. Folklore also advised housewives to finish their Christmas cleaning and decorating by this day.

No one knows exactly when and how Swedes came to revere St. Lucy in this way. Some compare the symbols connected with the Lucy bride to those associated with Freya, a goddess from Scandinavia’s pagan past. The pagan god Frey, to whom sacrifices were offered at YULE, had a sister named Freya. The ancient Scandinavians associated Freya with love, fertility, war, and wealth. She wore a bright necklace and drove a chariot pulled by cats.
Other folklorists contend that Lucy and her story are thoroughly Christian. Historians suspect that the custom of the Lucy bride developed in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Some connect it with a Swedish legend concerning the saint’s miraculous intervention during a famine. This legend closely resembles the Sicilian tale told above. One winter a terrible famine ravaged Sweden. During the longest night of the year, when the sufferings caused by cold, dark, and hunger were at their peak, a mysterious ship suddenly appeared on Lake Vannern. A woman dressed in white, her face radiating light, stood at the prow of the ship. It was St. Lucy. She guided the ship into harbor and delivered the stores of food it contained to the poor and hungry.

Although originally part of a family celebration, the role of the Lucy bride has spread to offices, schools, and other public institutions. Like the Lucys of home celebrations, these public Lucys wear white gowns and a crown of candles. They and their followers bring gifts of food, song, and light to co-workers, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Students playing the role of Lucy sometimes surprise favorite teachers in the early morning. Lucy and her followers also visit hotel guests, hospital patients, and even early-morning commuters and policemen.
During the past thirty or forty years villages and cities all over Sweden began to select their own Lucy queens. Often they organize a parade for the winner, who may be accompanied by youths dressed as star boys, biblical figures, trolls (see also JULTOMTEN), or other related characters. In Stockholm the judges must select their Lucy from among hundreds of competitors. Each year the honor of crowning Stockholm’s Lucy bride goes to the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.