|December 13 St Lucy
Lucy is a Sicilian saint, the patroness of Syracuse where she was martyred in the reign of Diocletian. One story says that when a suitor admired her beautiful eyes she cut them out and sent them to him, asking to be left in peace thereafter (like most early Christian virgin martyrs, she refused marriage). Now she is the patron of eye diseases and the blind and is often depicted carrying her eyeballs on a plate.
Lucy means light. Lucina is the Sabine goddess of Light, who was often pictured holding a plate of cakes (later mistaken for eyeballs) and a lamp. She was later absorbed into an aspect of Juno, Juno Lucina, who is goddess of childbirth, bringing children to light. Since Lucy's day falls right before (or, before the calendar change, upon) the winter solstice, she can be seen as the midwife of the miraculous sun-child who is born at Yule.
In Italy, her feast day is celebrated with torchlight processions and bonfires, clear indications of her role as light bringer. Apparently untroubled by the gruesome imagery, Italians eat St. Lucys eyes, cakes or biscotti shaped like eyeballs. In honor of a miracle performed by St Lucy during a famine in 1582 (she made a flotilla of grain-bearing ships appear in the harbor the people were so hungry they boiled and ate the grain without grinding it into flour), Sicilians don't eat anything made with wheat flour on her day. Instead they eat potatoes or rice in the form of arancine, golden croquettes shaped and fried to the color of oranges and filled with chopped meats. In Palermo, everyone eats cuccia, a dessert of whole-wheat berries cooked in water, then mixed with sweet ricotta.
The celebration of St Lucy spread over all of Europe. But the place where she is most beloved is Scandinavia, where light is especially welcome in the long hours of winter darkness. On her day, the eldest (or youngest) daughter rises before dawn and fixes a breakfast of special pastries and coffee for her family. She appears in their bedrooms, dressed in a white dress belted with a red sash, and wearing a wreath of greens and four (or seven or nine) lighted candles. Sometimes the wreath is made of green rue and decorated with red ribbons. She serves traditional pastries called lussekatter (or Lucy cats), x-shaped pastries, sometimes flavored with saffron. Other traditional foods served in her honor include saffron buns, ginger biscuits and glogg, a hot spiced wine with aquavit.
Later in the day, St Lucy makes a public appearance. Christina Hole describes a typical Swedish procession: St Lucy wearing her crown (of lingonberries or whortleberry twigs and surmounted with seven or nine candles) processes around the village followed by her attendants (young girls clad in white with glitter in their hair), star-boys (wearing white shirts and tall cone-shaped hats decorated with stars) and other children dressed as trolls and demons and old men. Sometimes St. Stephen (represented by a man on horseback) leads the way. In Switzerland, St Lucy strolls around the village with Father Christmas, giving gifts to the girls while he gives gifts to the boys. In Norway, Lucy is considered a loose woman, even a goblin, and is said to lead the Wild Hunt.
In Hungary, bands of Kotylok (cacklers) or fortune-telling lads go from house to house singing ancient fertility chants. The Kotylok wish for hens and geese, for many eggs and bountiful blessings. If the mistress of the house welcomes the singers and gives them the traditional present of dried pears, blessings will follow. If not, the chicken population may be reduced to one and that one blind (St Lucy's connection with eyesight showing up again in a rather peculiar application).
Just as the Italian Santa Lucia (Loo-CEE-a) partakes of the qualities of Juno Lucina, the midwife aspect of Juno the Queen of Heaven, the Scandinavian St Lucia (pronounced LOO-sha) partakes of the qualities of Freya, Queen of Heaven. Helen Farias speculates that the constellation we now know as Orion was once viewed by Celts as the great goddess Bride (the girl representing Lucy is called the Lucy Bride) and by the Northerners as the Goddess Freya. (Orions belt was sometimes called Freyas Distaff). Many centuries ago, this constellation processed across the sky during the winter nights, setting in the west at dawn about the time the daughter dresses herself as Lucy. Freya travels across the sky in a chariot drawn by cats. (Now Orion reappears in the North American sky in December.) Perhaps Lucys celebration replaced earlier rites devoted to Freya, thus explaining the Lucy cats and the star-boys.
Farias, Helen, in an early issue of The Beltane Papers, which is now out of print. Email me at email@example.com if you need an exact reference.
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow and Company 1990
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin Books 1978
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Womans Press 1937
St Lucia by Joanna Powell Colbert. Used with permission.
Photographs by Paul Bingman of the annual St Lucia party at Heron House, Yule 2000. Used with permission.