On December 13th, all over the world, in countries both far and near,
Christians celebrate Saint Lucy's Day in a variety of ways and with all
kinds of different traditions.
According to the ancient Roman calendar, the 13th of December was the
shortest day of the year when the Winter solstice occurred. After the Gregorian
reform of course, solstice falls between December 21st and 22nd, but the
13th has remained the day dedicated to the Sicilian Saint Lucy or Lucia,
whose name comes from the Latin word lux meaning light, thus the
link with this element and with the days growing longer after the Winter
In Sweden this celebration is called "Lucia Day" and the most
memorable moment is when a young girl wearing a long white dress, and a
wreath of candles around her head, leads a procession, usually in Church,
followed by both girls and boys wearing white gowns and holding candles.
The timing of this tradition is deeply rooted in the pre-Christian
holiday of Yule (or Jòl), but the fact that a predominantly
Lutheran country spends so much time and energy celebrating a day dedicated
to an early Christian saint who was born and martyred in Sicily is remarkable.
Months ahead, towns or schools actually elect the girl who will portray
Saint Lucy and lead the procession that year.
In the past, in some Swedish families, the eldest daughter would dress
up as Saint Lucy and offer her parents home-made sweet buns called Lussekatt
or "St. Lucia Bun" made with saffron just for this day.
This celebration takes on a completely different meaning in Sicily and
in the homes of people of Sicilian descent in different parts of the world
like in the United States, Argentina or Great Britain.
Here in Sicily, the main dish is called cuccìa (pronounced
koo-chì-ya), and it is made from wheat berries, which have been soaked
in water for a few days, and boiled for hours until soft and creamy. This
can be served simple as a soup with the addition of salt and extra-virgin
olive oil, or as a pudding mixed with sugar, chocolate, candied fruit and
sometimes even an addition of fresh ricotta cheese as it is prepared
|"Sweden, a predominantly Lutheran country, celebrates a day dedicated to an
early Christian saint who was born and martyred in Sicily."|
Cuccìa commemorates the saint's having saved her home town Siracusa from a famine
during the 17th century when a cargo of wheat arrived at the city's port
on Saint Lucy's Day and, being that people were starving and that they could
not wait to eat, they just took the wheat home, and ate it boiled, without
grinding it and turning it into flour first in order to make bread or pasta.
Lucy, who today is venerated in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox,
Anglican and Lutheran Churches, was from the south-eastern Sicilian city
of Siracusa, and she lived between the late 3rd century and the early 4th
century AD (CE) - traditionally between 283 and 304 AD. The earliest document
referring to Saint Lucy, a marble inscription, actually dates back to the
4th century shortly after her death and it was found in the Catacombs of
St. John underneath the city of Siracusa where she would often go to pray
with other Christians during the persecutions of Diocletian. These are the
second largest early Christian catacombs in the world after the ones in Rome.
Churches and monasteries dedicated to her were built soon after her death,
such as a 6th century monastery in her hometown. Furthermore, Saint Gregory
the Great wrote about her in one of his letters (Reg. Epist. VII, 36), and
she is one of the very few female saints mentioned in the canon of St. Gregory.
Born into a wealthy Roman family in Syracuse (although her mother Eutychia
was probably of Greek ancestry), Lucy had consecrated her life to Jesus Christ
and wanted to sell all her belongings and give them to the poor. Having
lost her father at a young age, it was for her mother to decide if she could
use her dowry to this purpose. Lucy's mother was obviously not of the same
mind as her daughter, and it took a miraculous healing to persuade her into
allowing Lucy to spend her dowry for the poor. Eutychia in fact had been
ill for a number of years and not even the best doctors available at the
time were able to help her. Lucy convinced her mother to accompany her to
Saint Agatha's tomb in Catania. Agatha had been
martyred over fifty years before and was already considered a saint. While
they were praying before her tomb, Lucy urged her mother to touch Agatha's
relic with faith, and, after doing so, Eutychia was suddenly healed.
Upon their return to Siracusa, Lucy was finally allowed to offer her
dowry as alms to the poor, but the young man to whom she had been betrothed,
stirred by anger at having been refused by Lucy and by greed for his lost
chance of getting his hands on her dowry, decided to denounce her to the
local governor Paschasius as a Christian during a time in which this was
still a prohibited religion in the Roman Empire.
First of all, the governor tried to break her will by sending her to
a temple dedicated to sacred prostitution, but Lucy was immovable both in
spirit and in body, in fact, the governor's soldiers could not move her
at all, so they tried tying her to a group of oxen, but they were not able
to drag her away from where she stood.
At this point, the soldiers were ordered to light a fire around her,
but the flames did not touch the young woman.
In the end, they stabbed her in the throat with a dagger, but before
passing away Lucy foretold the end of Diocletian's and Maximian's rule,
and she received Holy Communion. It was 13 December 304, and she was buried
on the same site where she died. When Caravaggio came to Siracusa in 1608,
he painted the saint's burial for one of the churches dedicated to her and
this painting, The Burial of Saint Lucy, can still be seen in
the Church of St. Lucy at the end of Piazza Duomo.
Local tradition sometimes also mentions that Lucy removed her eyes when
her betrothed complimented her for their beauty, and handed them over to
him on a platter for him to keep, while a brand new set of eyes were miraculously
restored to her thanks to her faith and perseverance in God. This apparently
is only a legend linked to her name meaning light and to the fact that eyes
are figuratively connected with the "light of a person's soul".
For centuries pilgrims would visit her tomb in Siracusa, but during an incursion into Sicily during the
Arab rule, the Byzantine general George Maniakes removed her body in 1039 with the
excuse that it would be safer in Constantinople, and later, during the
4th Crusade, in 1204 Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, brought her body
to his home city. Today, most of her relics are still in Venice in the Church
of Saint Geremia. Her left arm, though is back in her hometown of Siracusa
today in the magnificent Duomo (cathedral), which incorporates a 5th century BC (BCE) Greek
temple. Her head instead was donated to Louis XII, King of France in 1513
and today is kept in the Cathedral of Bourges. A few other minor relics
can be found in other European churches.
In Europe, besides being venerated in various parts of northern and southern
Italy, and in the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, Finland and
Denmark, she is also commemorated in Malta in Mtarfa on the main island
and in Santa Lucija on the island of Gozo. Malta also has a strong devotion
for Saint Agatha, who apparently lived there for a while.
About the Author: Historian Jacqueline Alio wrote Women
of Sicily - Saints, Queens & Rebels and co-authored The Peoples of Sicily - A Multicultural Legacy.