Celebrating an Italian saint in Sweden: The feast and legend of Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) is a Catholic saint who was born in Syracuse, Sicily, in 283 AD and was martyred at the age of 20. Though she lived a considerably short life, she is still celebrated in different parts of the world almost two thousand years later.

Few facts are known about Lucia’s life and death, though several stories and legends have evolved over the centuries. Just about all of the stories start the same way: Lucia was born into a wealthy Sicilian family. At a time of Christian persecution, Lucia vowed at a young age to live her life in the service of Christ. Lucia’s mother attempted an arranged marriage for her daughter to a pagan man. When Lucia refused, the angry suitor reported her to Roman authorities, and Lucia subsequently was sentenced to life in a brothel and forced into prostitution. Staunchly loyal to her faith, Lucia benefitted from divine intervention: when it came time for her to be placed in the brothel by Roman guards, she became immovable; it was as if she had turned to stone and the guards could not move her. The soldiers then built piles of wood around her in an effort to burn her alive. Lucia was untouched by the flames and survived the inferno. Lucia ultimately met her death, however, when she was stabbed through the neck with a sword.

Santa Lucia

News of Lucia’s defense of Christianity quickly spread and she became one of the earliest Christian saints to achieve popularity. It makes sense that Lucia would be venerated in Sicily, Rome, and throughout the rest of Italy. But how and why did she become so celebrated in other countries, namely, Sweden?

Lucia in Sweden

Just as with the story of Lucia’s life and death, no one is absolutely certain how the legend of Santa Lucia made it to Sweden. But since the late 1800s, December 13 – the feast day of Santa Lucia – is widely celebrated throughout the country. There is speculation that stories of Lucia’s bravery were brought to Sweden by traders and even by Vikings after their journeys to Southern Europe. Another explanation has to do with the name Lucia, which is derived from the Latin word “lux”, meaning light. It is believed that Lucia and her feast day were adopted as a way to let in some light at the beginning of the dark, cold Swedish winter.

Today’s Lucia celebrations involve the oldest daughter of the family dressing in a long white robe with a red sash around the waist, along with a crown of fresh greens and lit candles worn upon her head. The young lady rises before the rest of her family and serves them traditional Lussekatter (Lucia buns) and coffee. In many villages and towns across Sweden, there are Lucia processions and concerts and the celebrations signify the beginning of the Christmas season.

Lussekatter (Lucia buns)

Lussekatter | Credit

My Santa Lucia connection

Growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood, in an Italian-American family, I learned of Santa Lucia at a young age. I remember attending mass at our neighborhood parish and seeing the statue of Santa Lucia. It always freaked me out because she was holding a gold plate with a pair of eyeballs placed upon it (stemming from another legend). As I got older, I learned the traditional Italian song, “Santa Lucia”, in school and was made to perform it for my great-grandmother (who spoke only Italian) at family gatherings.

The name and the song always stuck with me. I loved that Lucia stems from the Latin word for light because it seems there isn’t ever enough positive light in our world. Then I saw something on television about Lucia in Sweden, images of young girls wearing the crowns with lit candles. I thought it a bit crazy and somewhat of a fire hazard but, still, I was intrigued. It was around that time I decided if I were to have a daughter of my own one day, I would name her Lucia. And I did. The name represents my (and her) Italian heritage and it embodies the beauty of light, as does my daughter. My Lucia truly is the light of my life.

Santa Lucia

The light of my life, my Lucia

Also as Italian-Americans, we celebrate onomastico, or name days. It involves celebrating the feast day of the saint after which a person is named. Oftentimes, onomastico is celebrated like a birthday, with gifts being given and everything. We started celebrating Lucia’s onomastico, December 13th, when she was younger. I gave her little gifts and began teaching her about Santa Lucia. We even incorporated some of the Swedish traditions into our celebrations. Naturally, she was as intrigued as I was and asked if we could one day travel to Sweden for Lucia Day. I promised her we would, and I’m keeping my promise. Lucia, my mother, and I will spend Lucia Day 2017 in Gothenburg, Sweden.

We will attend a Lucia concert at Gothenburg Cathedral, which I am sure will be quite moving, and enjoy as much of the celebrations as possible. Please follow along on my social media channels as I share our experiences in real time. Of course, I will provide full reports upon our return. Lastly, if you’ve been to Gothenburg, please tell me what we shouldn’t miss while there!

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11 Responses to Celebrating an Italian saint in Sweden: The feast and legend of Santa Lucia

  1. Lindsay @ Let Me Give You Some Advice November 29, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    What a beautiful story! I grew up in a church with a strong Swedish heritage and we always had a St. Lucia breakfast in December. One year, I got to play St. Lucia and dress in the traditional outfit. Such fun memories! I hope you and your Lucia have a fantastic trip!

  2. Melissa November 29, 2017 at 10:12 am #

    What a beautiful tradition that you’re passing down. Safe travels and I look forward to reading about your experience when you return.

  3. Dannielle November 29, 2017 at 12:28 pm #

    I’d never heard of this before so I enjoyed learning, thanks. The pastries look delicious. Need to get to Sweden soon!
    Dannielle recently posted…13 Fantastic Experiences You Can Have In ManchesterMy Profile

  4. Carol Colborn December 1, 2017 at 2:04 pm #

    What a beautiful story that is also very personal. Love your little girl, Lucia, too!

  5. Lara Dunning December 2, 2017 at 2:05 pm #

    Wow! That is some legend! I’ve not heard about this saint, but love learning about this sort of stuff and how different countries celebrate the holiday season. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Brianna Simmons December 2, 2017 at 9:02 pm #

    What a moving story and I love the inspiration for your daughter’s name!

  7. Adelina December 3, 2017 at 10:56 am #

    What an interesting tradition and such a beautiful story. Good for you for passing on these stories and traditions onto the next generation. Enjoy your time in Sweden!
    Adelina recently posted…Know Before You Go: 10 Tips For Visiting the Taj MahalMy Profile

  8. Sandy N Vyjay December 3, 2017 at 5:58 pm #

    The legend of St. Lucia is really fascinating. Just living for 20 years and attaining sainthood speaks volumes about this young saint and that is probably one of the reasons for her feast day being celebrated in distant Sweden too.I was not aware of this heroic saint and appreciate knowing about her through this post.

  9. melody pittman December 4, 2017 at 9:52 am #

    Fascinating yet morbid story. I had an exchange student whose father was Swedish so she had an outfit like that (the headdress) for the holidays. Lovely! I love when the holidays have these ancient traditions behind them. Thanks for sharing.

  10. BonBon December 5, 2017 at 1:57 pm #

    Never heard about her but so nice of you of sharing it here and of course your story:) Your daughter, Lucia, is so beautiful!!!

  11. Jody Robbins December 10, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

    I love how you and your family has a connection with St. Lucia. I always wondered about those Saint days, how they came into being, what people do. This was a lovely way to experience it for myself.
    Jody Robbins recently posted…How to avoid the cold or flu when you travelMy Profile

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