by Leann O'Neill
As we near December 13, the traditional date of honoring Saint Lucia, we look deep into the past to find the origin of the celebration. Common questions such as "Who was St. Lucia?" "Was she Italian or Swedish?" "What's with the burning candles on her head?" and "How do you pronounce 'Lucia'?"often surface when we take a closer look. So, let's begin with the last one first so the mystery of her name is cleared up right from the start.
How You Say Her Name Depends on Where You're From
There are many ways to say "St. Lucia." In the Caribbean, you'd say “loo-sha." If you're Spanish or Italian, you'd say Santa Lucia (loo-CHEE-a). And if you're from Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, you'd say Sankta Lucia (loo-SEE-a). In America, many people just say "St. Lucy"(loo-see). No matter how you say her name, the word origin is still the same: The name “Lucia” comes from the Latin word “lux” which means “light,” and it's no secret that the festival of St. Lucia falls at the time of year when the days are shortest and darkness surrounds. Many cultures have celebrations around the winter solstice and the "bringing of the light," especially the Nordic countries where the sun barely rises in winter. As bright as the idea of St. Lucia may be, her true biography is a bit sensational (not to mention a little gory) within the story of darkness turning to light.
St. Lucia in History
Though few facts are known about St. Lucia’s life and death, several stories have evolved over the centuries. As the legend goes, Lucy was born to very wealthy, aristocratic parents about AD 283 in Syracuse, Sicily. Her Roman father died when she was five years old, leaving her and her mother without someone to protect them. From an early age, Lucia vowed to live her life according to Christian teachings and devote her time and resources to the poor and homeless. Under cover of darkness, she brought food and aid to Christians in hiding using a candle-lit wreath on her head to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. Because of these actions, her Greek mother, Eutcyhia, feared for Lucia’s life in the time of Christian persecution. Wanting to secure her daughter’s future quickly, she arranged a marriage to a young man from a pagan family. Lucy refused to marry the non-believer, wanting to remain celibate and to give her dowry to the poor. The suitor became angry and reported her to Roman authorities where judges sentenced her to life as a prostitute to shame her.
The legends further say that when the guards came to take her way, they could not move her even when they hitched a team of oxen to pull her. It was as if she had turned to stone. Subsequently, the soldiers piled wood around her and tried to burn her alive, but she was untouched by the flames and survived. In extreme anger, the soldiers gouged out her eyes and stabbed her in the neck with a sword, finally causing her death at age 20. When her body was prepared for burial in the family crypt, it was discovered that her eyes had been miraculously restored. News of Lucia’s plight spread quickly, and she became a revered martyr and one of the earliest Christian saints.
Image: Statue of St. Lucia as presented each year for the Saint Lucia Festival in Syracuse, Italy. Photo © Sebastiano Leggio/Fotolia
St. Lucia as We Celebrate Her Today
Today, Lucia is the patron saint of the blind, tied to the lore around the loss of her eyes during her martyrdom. She is often depicted by medieval artists carrying a dish containing her eyes and as the bringer of light in recognition of her work bringing food to the poor.
Families and communities celebrate St. Lucia's feast day on December 13 during Advent and winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The Lucia Festival is a popular, relatively modern tradition in Sweden and Swedish communities worldwide. The first public Lucia celebration was held in Stockholm in 1927. Lucia festivals provide a ray of light during the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year in Sweden, and traditionally marks the start of the Christmas season.
Image: Saint Lucy, painted in 1521 by Domenico
di Pace Beccafumi, held in the Pinacoteca
Nazionale (National Museum) in Siena, Italy.
Almost every town in Sweden chooses one girl to be Lucia and lead the town’s parade. The chosen girl wears a white robe with a red sash around her waist and a wreath of candles on her head which gives the effect of a halo. The Lucia girl is joined by a group of Lucia attendants and Star Boys, representing the three Wise Men, who together form a choir that sings Christmas carols and the traditional “Lucia Song.”
Image: A Swedish St. Lucia procession, 2006. Note St. Lucia with her wreath of candles, and the Star Boys in tall hats decorated with stars. Photo by Claudia Gründer.
“Night walks grand, yet silent, now hear it gently sing, In every room so hushed, whispering like wings. Look, at our threshold stands, white-clad with light in her hair, Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia! The Christmas season is in the air!”
Song adapted from a Neapolitan boat song by Teodoro Cottrau
The Puget Sound region is home to many Scandinavian and Italian people who came here to make a new life during times of hardship in their homeland. With them came their traditions that we share in this darkest time of year. For all, it is a time to celebrate the light that pierces the darkness; a time for sharing, thoughtfulness, kindness, and good deeds. And when the light returns, there will be dancing under the midnight sun.
Image: Traditional Scandinavian dancing demonstrations held at Skandia Gaard on Peacock Hill in Gig Harbor during Harbor Holidays, June 1972. Skandia Gaard started as a gift shop in the old Johnston-Thorstensen barn about 1958 and quickly became a hub for sharing Scandinavian traditions. Photo by Frank Owen Shaw, Harbor History Museum Collection.
“St. Lucy.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Lucy
“Biography of Saint Lucy, Bringer of Light” by Amanda Prahl, www.learnreligions.com/saint-lucy-bringer-of-light-4589771
“St. Lucy,” www. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Lucy
“Celebrating an Italian saint in Sweden: The feast and legend of Santa Lucia” by Francesca, www. theworkingmomstravels.com/legend-santa-lucia
Image of St. Lucia procession, Wikipedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucia-13.12.06.jpg