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.
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.
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.
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!