Saint Lucy’s Day: A Light in a Dark Time

medieval image of saint lucy from the walters art museumSaint Lucy’s Day: A Light in a Dark Time

By Jessica Storoschuk

Published Online (2013)

Introduction: While North American children look to Santa Claus to bring presents and treats on 25 December, Scandinavian and Sicilian girls eagerly await the arrival of Saint Lucy on 13 December. Despite an increasingly irreligious society, Saint Lucy’s day traditions that include costume, food, and ceremonies are still widely being practiced. Because of connections that stem from her martyrdom she is linked to more than simply gift giving; she is linked to the light that the solstice brings, food that is in abundance, and ceremonies specifically for young women to discover the identity of their future husband.

Saint Lucy, also known as Saint or Santa Lucia, was martyred in Sicily in the late third century in the Diocletian persecutions. She, like many martyrs of the period, devoted her virginity to God. Lucy and her sick mother, a widow, travelled to Catania where she was healed; upon receiving her good health back, Lucy’s mother agreed to distribute most of their wealth to the poor. This angered the man that Lucy was engaged to and he reported her “wrong-doings” to the governor of Sicily. She was originally condemned to be a prostitute but the guards were unable to physically move her. Her executors were also unable to burn her alive, and she was eventually killed by a sword.

The feast day of Lucy is 13 December. Before the Gregorian calendar reform this was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year; as such, Lucy’s day is still associated with lights. “Because her feast day fell on December 13… her legend became intertwined with the midwinter festivals of various parts of Europe.”2 In particular, Sweden and Sicily celebrate Saint Lucy Day. In Sicily, she is the patron saint of the blind, as well as the patron saint of Sicily, while in Sweden she is representative of light and the life that comes with it. Scholars have not been able to completely account for the connection between Lucy and light; one connection that is repeatedly mentioned is the proximity of her name to lux (the Latin word for light). In his landmark monograph Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, Clement Miles proposes that “[i]t is possible… that the name gave rise to the special use of lights among the Latin-learned monks who brought Christianity to Sweden, and that the custom spread from them to the common people.” Regardless of the origin, to this day Lucy remains a symbol for light.

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