CHARLOTTE, NC, December 12, 2017 – With short days and long cold nights, winter is not an especially appealing time to visit Scandinavia for most people. There is, however, a Christmas tradition in that part of the world dating as far back as the 3rd-century which cannot help but bring tears to your eyes when you witness it.
Santa Lucia – December 13, 2017
Known as Saint Lucy’s Day, Santa Lucia is a Christian feast day that falls on December 13 each year to commemorate a a young girl, Lucy, martyr who brought “food and aid to Christians hiding in catacombs.”
Santa Lucia is primarily a Nordic celebration, however, it does occur in a few other places around the world. The feast once coincided with the Winter Solstice honoring the shortest day of the year. Therefore, much like Midsummers in Scandinavia which pays homage to the longest day of the year, this, too, is a festival of light.
Who was Saint Lucy?
According to legend, Lucy was born around 283 to wealthy parents. Her father, who was of noble Roman heritage, dying when Lucy was only five years old.
Year’s later, an influential compendium of saint’s biographies reports that Lucy was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agnes. Lucy’s mother was restored to health in this miracle. Seizing upon the opportunity of miracle cure, Lucy began to distribute a large portion of the family riches to the poor.
Giving away her family riches enraged her future husband. Lucy’s downfall came later when she refused to compromise her virginity in her pending marriage. The rejection quickly brought her intended husband to denounce her to the Roman authorities.
Even with the threat of being taken to a brothel, Lucy stood firm insisting she would continue to speak out regardless of the punishment.
Soldiers came to take her to her punishment, but they could not move her. Eventually, her enemies stacked bundles of wood around her in an effort to consume her by fire, but Lucy showed no fear and the fire would not light. One Roman soldier was to have sent a spear through her throat in an effort to halt Lucy’s denouncements, but even that had no effect.
In the writings of John Henry Blunt, the author claims that Lucy’s plight was not unlike that of many 4th-century virgin martyrs.
Santa Lucia: Giving aid to Christians
The other most common story about Saint Lucy is the one where she was providing aid to Christians in hiding from the reign of terror under the rule of Roman Emperor Diocletian. In order to carry as many supplies as possible, Lucy attached candles to a wreath which she wore on her head, thus allowing both hands to be free.
In writing about Lucy’s martyrdom, Charles Macfarlane says,
“Her chief offense may have been that she bestowed the whole of her large wealth on the poor instead of sharing it with her suitor who accused her to the governor of professing Christianity.”
Today, the candle wreath is still an honored tradition as is the wearing of a solid white dress with a red sash. The white signifies the purity of Christ’s baptismal robe while the red is symbolic of the blood Christ shed on the cross to save mankind.
The Celebration of Santa Lucia
During the transition from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, there was confusion as to which day the Feast of Light fell. Even as late as the mid-18th century Scandinavia’s observation of the longest night of the year aligns with the Winter Solstice using the Julian Calendar as its guide.
With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, there were discrepancies ranging as high as 8 days in the difference. Eventually, December 13th was chosen over December 21st, primarily to allow more time between the Santa Lucia and Christmas.
Though modern observances of Santa Lucia in Scandinavia are only about 200 years old, it was a popular feast day in the Middle Ages continuing well after the Protestant Reformation in the 1520’s and 1530’s.
The Ceremony of Santa Lucia
The Santa Lucia celebration is essentially the same in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland with a few individual cultural twists thrown in that are particular to each nation.
The ceremony commences when one young woman is chosen to lead a procession of young women. The girl in the lead represents Santa Lucia and she wears a wreath of candles on her hair. The other ladies in the ceremony follow, each with a candle in her hands.
The candle flames represent the fire that would not consume Saint Lucy when she was sentenced to burning.
Oddly enough, if the tradition is unfamiliar, the music is well known to almost everyone because it is the melody of the traditional Neopolitan Italian song “Santa Lucia.”
While the lyrics differ from country to country, the music remains the same. In Italy, the words describe the view from Santa Lucia in Naples.
The various Scandinavian versions each depict in their own language the light which Lucia used to overcome the darkness.
Though not regarded as a national holiday in Scandinavia, the Santa Lucia celebration is an endearing tradition that captivates anyone who ever has the good fortune to witness it.
Other countries following the tradition are Italy, Malta, Croatia, Hungary, Venezuela, the tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia and most of the Scandinavian regions in the upper mid-west of the United States.
Santa Lucia is little known to Americans, but should you ever have an opportunity to experience its compelling charm, be sure to bring a box of Kleenex. You’ll be glad you did.
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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