While she may be less familiar to readers in the UK, Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia, is just as important as Santa Claus to children in certain parts of Europe. Not that they'll be quite as enthralled by her rather grim journey to sainthood. So, let's find out what she's all about and why she may seem a little more familiar than you first thought.
Who was Saint Lucy?
Shortly after she was born in Syracuse, Sicily in 283AD, Lucy's Roman father died. Despite being born into a wealthy household, young Lucy was encouraged to share her good fortune with the poor by her bereaved mother, Eutychia who was suffering from an incurable disease.
Fearing an early demise, Eutychia arranged for Lucy to be married to a wealthy pagan man, but Lucy had undertaken solemn vows to ensure her virginity belonged only to God. Her devotion initially paid off when Eutychia was miraculously cured of her disease after Saint Agatha appeared to Lucy in a vision and, through recognition of saving her mother, Lucy began to give away her fortunes to the needy in the name of God.
But these were the fortunes that her betrothed and his family were due to inherit once the pair were married. This didn't go down well, and her furious former husband-to-be denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse, who attempted to humiliate Lucy by insisting she burn a sacrifice of devotion to the pagan Roman Emperor. Lucy rejected the offer and was ordered to live out her days in a brothel, but when the guards came to take her, she wouldn't budge. Some texts have put this down to divine intervention, it's even been said that the guards tried to drag her to the brothel by attaching her to a cart drawn by oxen.
When this didn't work, the guards tried to set her on fire, but the flames wouldn't catch, so either her custodians or Lucy, gouged out her eyes before she was fatally stabbed in the neck. But, when her lifeless body was being prepared for burial, her eyes miraculously reappeared. For this reason, Lucy is the patron saint of the blind.
Her story quickly became famous, references to her are found in both Roman and Catholic texts, and she's cited by the Venerable Bede, the 6th Century English monk and scholar who illuminated the first part of the dark ages. By the 8th Century in England, she had two churches dedicated to her and her very own saint's day that forbade non-essential work. But her popularity, and her saint's day, were swept into obscurity by Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century and in England, her story faded into the past. But in parts of Italy and Sweden, Saint Lucy is venerated on the 13th of December with celebrations that are a far cry from the ghastly circumstances of her martyrdom.
La Festa di Santa Lucia
In northern Italy, Santa Lucia is a festival that revolves around children in pretty much the same way as Christmas, though Christmas as we know it didn't exist until the Reformation when Martin Luther hijacked Saint Nicholas' 6th of December Feast Day.
The idea was to put Baby Jesus, rather than the Catholic-sanctioned Saint Nicholas, front and centre of the gifting celebrations by heaping all the fun stuff associated with St Nick onto Christmas Day. Ultimately it worked, and in due course, the downgraded Saint Nicholas would appropriate many of the customs associated with Santa Lucia.
In northern Italy, Santa Lucia is believed to travel through the night sky on a carriage pulled by a donkey (possibly a reference to the aforementioned oxen and cart) giving gifts to all the good children who, on the previous evening, leave out oranges, cookies and wine for Santa Lucia and carrots and hay for the donkey. Sound familiar?
It's also interesting that a Sicilian saint is so enthusiastically revered in specific areas of North Italy (she's not venerated in Milan, but she is in Brescia) and not at all in other parts of the country. One reason may lie in a 13th Century story about a disease that blinded children in Verona, which is 160km from Milan and 70km from Brescia. To encourage children to make a long, cold pilgrimage to a church devoted to Santa Lucia to save their eyesight, they were promised gifts on their return. The children agreed, the disease vanished, and the link between Santa Lucia and giving gifts to children was established. But, strangely, Saint Lucy is also recognised in some staunchly non-Catholic parts of Scandinavia.
Saint Lucy's Day
Saint Lucy's Day is celebrated in Sweden, Norway and parts of Finland on December 13th. But why these traditionally non-Catholic countries have embraced a Catholic saint with such passion remains intriguing.
When the Catholics arrived in Scandinavia around 1000AD the inhabitants incorporated this new faith into pre-existing belief systems. And instead of focusing on Saint Lucy being blind, the Scandinavians took their cues from the fact her eyes were restored, rather than removed. 'Lucia' derives from 'lux,' the Latin word for light, and Saint Lucy became to represent light. As the antithesis to the dark winter months, she wound up featuring in winter solstice and Christian celebrations, a dichotomy that became the annual 'Festival of Light'.
Festival of light
Before songs are sung and traditional foods -saffron bread, ginger biscuits- are served to family and friends, the Festival of Light begins with a parade led by an excited Saint Lucia (normally a little girl that's been chosen by her community to play the part) followed by boys and girls dressed in white.
In both Sweden and Italy, Santa Lucia is often depicted wearing 'una corona di candele' (a crown of candles) though this could just as easily be a tinsel headband. In the Swedish version, the tradition was inspired by a story that tells of Lucia attaching a candle to a wreath on her head to bring supplies to persecuted Christians hiding in dark catacombs.
Saint Lucy facts
- The latter tale wouldn't work in Italy, there, Santa Lucia is blind, her face covered by a white veil to conceal her empty eye sockets and to remind devotees that she is, and will always be, the bride of God.
- Saint Lucy's remains are in Chiesa dei Santi Geremia e Lucia in Venice, 1350 km away from where she lived and died.
- In parts of Northern Italy, a cowbell, as worn by Lucia's flying donkey, is sounded a few days before the 13th of December to remind small children to be on their best behaviour.
- Santa Lucia has an assistant, just like Santa, though Castaldo is a little more sinister in appearance with his dark hat, cloak and, often, a bandana covering his nose and mouth.
- The 13th of December is also National Republic Day in Malta