When the nights are long and dark, when the cold etches itself into our bones and when the days are seemingly over before they’ve begun, the Winter Festivals of Light carry us in their arms to Spring’s doorstep. Feasts, festivals and holy days sprinkle the weeks between Hanukah and the New Year lifting our spirits and brightening the darkness.
Tomorrow, December 13, marks the Feast day of Saint Lucia, (also referred to as St. Lucy or the Goddess Lucia) a young Christian martyr who lived in Syracuse on the island of Sicily, Italy from 284-304 ad. The Feasts of Saint Lucia have spread far and wide throughout the world which is in and of itself, quite remarkable. Most notably is that an Italian Saint would be predominantly celebrated in the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark so early in history.
Whether one knows of the legends surrounding St. Lucia, her image is easily invoked: a young woman robed in white with a sash of red (signifying her martyrdom) adorned with a crown of candles upon her head (yes- they’re lit. Getting the wax out of her hair must not have been an easy feat.) Sometimes she is carrying a tray laden with food while other times the tray instead holds a set of eyes.
Multiple legends are attributed to St. Lucia that influence not only the rituals surrounding her feast day but also that of her image throughout time.
The first is that St. Lucia, dedicating her life to her faith, carried baskets of food to persecuted Christians, who had hidden themselves in underground tunnels, using a a crown of candles to light her way. Today, St. Lucia is honored and celebrated on her feast day by young women who are chosen to deliver food to their families and communities dressed as St. Lucia in her white and red, complete with the crown of lit candles.
The second legend shares with the first St. Lucia’s spirit of devotion and generosity. In this, she is betrothed to a wealthy man who learns that she has given away a significant portion of his money and jewels to the poor and needy. Enraged, he tries to have her killed, but the oxen to whom she is bound can’t pull her. Then he tries to burn her, but she won’t burn. Ultimately, she meets her end by the sword. Since her veneration, St. Lucia has been called upon to care for and feed the poor and starving.
And in the third, she is again betrothed to a wealthy man, the arrangement made by her sickly mother (who only wants the best for her I’m sure) but the young and beautiful Lucia is devastated and takes matters into her own hands by poking her eyes out so as to be so unattractive, the young man backs out of the marriage. It must be said here, however, that it was reported that when she was buried, her eyes were intact. Because of this association with eyes and sight, St. Lucia has become the patron saint of the blind and the protector of sight. She also has been called the Goddess of Childbirth who opens the eyes of infants. Images of the young saint carrying a tray with eyes upon it have been attributed to this legend, however, in one that I discovered, the hypothesis was given that it’s possible that images of her carrying the small cakes upon her tray were mistaken for eyes out of which grew the third legend.
As the legend of Saint Lucia traveled North, her story was combined with that of the Nordic Goddess Freya. Both Goddesses are associated with sun symbols such as that representing the Winter Solstice, the original day of her Feast. According to the Julian calendar, December 13 was the longest night of the year but was adjusted to the Gregorian calendar date of December 21, the day we now celebrate Winter Solstice.