St. Lucy or Santa Lucia

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The winter holiday season is teeming with mysterious figures shrouded in myth, like Saint Nicholas, who became Santa Claus; the mysterious Frauen of German tradition; and Befana, the old witch of Italy who sweeps away the Old Year at Epiphany. One of my favorites of these numinous characters is St. Lucy or Santa Lucia, who appears at the moment of greatest darkness (her feast day is December 13) to bring light back to the northern hemisphere.

She is especially beloved in the Scandinavian countries, where nights are truly long (six hours of sunlight on her day in Oslo and in Stockholm). The oldest—or sometimes the youngest—daughter of the house will get up before dawn on December 13, dress all in white with a crown of candles on her head, and appear in the bedrooms of her other family members, like an apparition or a goddess, bearing a tray of hot pastries and warm beverages. St. Lucy also appears in processions, marching through the streets wearing her crown of candles and preceded by “star boys” wearing white, conical hats and carrying lanterns. The special saffron buns she serves are called Lucy cats and suggest a connection with Freya, the Norse goddess of abundance, who flew through the night skies (somewhat like Santa Claus) in a chariot pulled by cats.

Odd as it may seem the legend of St. Lucy came to Scandinavia by way of Italy. Lucy is one of the earliest Christian martyrs, her name known mostly from an inscription on a tomb in the Catacombs of St. John in Syracuse. But stories have gathered around her name about how she plucked out her eyes when a suitor admired them, about how she arrived on a ship full of grain during a famine. Some scholars speculate that these legends belonged to an older goddess, a goddess of light named Lucina (lux is the Latin word for light), perhaps an aspect of Juno as goddess of light and childbirth. She was often depicted holding a tray with two cakes on it (later misinterpreted as eyeballs).

St. Lucy’s feast day was celebrated in Sicily in the past with bonfires and torchlight processions. Special foods are served in her honor. Sicilians don’t eat wheat on her day in honor of her gift of wheat during a famine. Instead they eat arancini, which are deep-fried croquettes; fritters made of garbanzo bean flour; and cuccìa, a pudding made with wheat berries. Food historian Carol Field believes the whole grains represent seeds, promising abundance for the next harvest.

In Italian homes, Santa Lucia has some of the characteristics of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She travels on a donkey on the eve of December 13, and children leave out bowls of milk and bundles of carrots or hay for the hungry donkey. In Bergamo, children get all of their gifts from Santa Lucia, who leaves these in their shoes, as Saint Nicholas does on December 5 in the Netherlands. In northeastern Italy, presents are opened on December 13, not on Christmas Day. And in Verona children receive special cookies shaped like ponies or piglets or flowers from Santa Lucia on her day.

If you are looking for more information on St. Lucy, you might enjoy the article “Who Is Santa Lucia?” by Joanna Powell Colbert, who has sponsored a fabulous Lucia party for many years.

Waverly FitzgeraldWaverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”

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