Written by Meghan E. Gattignolo
December is the darkest month of the year in the Northern Hemisphere – maybe that’s why so many traditions that make up the holiday season are associated with lights and candles. In December, Christians light Advent candles and decorate Christmas trees covered in twinkling lights, Hanukkah spans eight nights of lighting candles on the menorah and a kinara displays seven colorful candles for Kwanzaa. On December 13, a lesser-known holiday recognizes one of Christianity’s earliest martyrs whose very name means “light” – the feast day of Saint Lucy.
A Saint’s Feast Day
In the Catholic religion, saints are regular people who devoted their lives to God and have miracles attributed to them either while they’re still alive or after their death. The Catholic Church determines a date to celebrate each saint, which establishes their feast day. With over 10,000 saints recognized within about 2,000 years of history, there are a lot of special days to celebrate. During medieval times, when the Catholic Church was the ultimate authority in the lives of most Europeans, life revolved around the feast days of the saints. These holidays provided welcome downtime for peasant farmers and gave everyone opportunities to have fun with friends during an era of constant famine and disease. While most feast days are no longer recognized by the general public, modern culture still remembers a few. St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 is the official feast day of Ireland’s most famous saint, celebrated on the same day in Ireland for over 1,000 years. February 14 is really St. Valentine’s feast day, and German families put their shoes out to be filled with goodies for St. Nicholas’ Day on December 6.
Lucia of Syracuse
Lucia – often anglicized as Lucy – was born near the turn of the 4th century in Syracuse, Sicily. Precious few details of Lucy’s life are known for sure, but she was a member of Roman nobility. Her father died when she was young and left her a hefty dowry. Lucy’s mother arranged a marriage for her, but the future saint had other plans. Inspired by Saint Agatha, Lucy devoted her life to God and refused to marry. Her conviction swayed her mother, and the two gave away most of Lucy’s inheritance to the poor before her would-be suitor noticed and reported her for being a Christian. Lucy’s Sicily was still ruled by Rome during the last Christian persecution. For her religious devotion and refusal to fulfill social expectations, the 21-year-old Lucy was sentenced to death.
By the fall of the Roman Empire about 170 years later, Lucy had become beloved by Christians. Epic stories surrounding her death, albeit horrifying ones, proved to early Christians that Lucy was special. A few conflicting stories circulated in reference to the traumatic loss of her eyes, and new eyes reappearing at her death. This led to Lucy’s veneration as the patron saint of blindness and other eye ailments, and she is usually depicted in paintings and statues holding a pair of eyes. Additionally, her name is derived from the Latin word lux, meaning “light,” so she is symbolically remembered as a bringer of light during dark times.
Syracuse, Sicily, where Lucia was born and where she died.
Celebrating St. Lucy
Lucy was adopted into sainthood by popular demand. Today, the Feast of St. Lucy on December 13 is popularly celebrated around Europe. As the patron of Syracuse, she’s a big deal in Sicily and celebrated with processions and feasting. St. Lucy’s Day is also celebrated nationally in Sweden. Sweden loves Lucy because of a miracle story associated with the saint, in which a ship laden with wheat appeared with St. Lucy on board during a Swedish famine crisis during the Middle Ages.
To celebrate St. Lucy’s Day, girls dress up in Lucy’s colors of white and red – symbols of purity and martyrdom – and wear crowns of lit candles on their heads. The candles both symbolize Lucy’s namesake of light, and are a reference to a legend told of Lucy providing aid to Christians hiding from their Roman persecutors in Sicily’s dark underground catacombs. Wearing the candles on her head left her hands free to carry food. Most cities in Sweden host public festivities, in which one young woman is chosen to lead a procession through town dressed as St. Lucy.
To celebrate St. Lucy’s Day at home, try this Swedish recipe known as lussekatter, a sweet bun served during the holiday festivities, complete with two raisins to symbolize Lucy’s eyes. Giving food out freely to loved ones or the needy is also a great way to mark the day, or simply light some candles to ward off the darkness of the season.
Meghan E. Gattignolo
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.
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