The modern day celebration of Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy's Day) on December 13 is generally associated with Sweden and Norway, but is also observed in some parts of Italy, where it is actually a very ancient tradition that dates back to 1337.
The feast is a Catholic celebrated holiday with roots that can be traced back to Sicily. St. Lucia is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse. Although no sources of her life exist other than in hagiographies, St. Lucy is believed to have been born and suffered a martyr's death in Syracuse around AD 310.
Santa Lucia. Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo (Sicily). Photo: Frida_Clio
Celebration takes place on the 13th of December, the day of Santa Lucia's death. At the time of her death, Winter solstice fell on December 21, hence the saying "Santa Lucia il giorno più corto che ci sia" (Saint Lucy, the shortest day). However, since then, the difference between the calendar year and the tropical year in the Julian calendar moved the day associated with the actual astronomical solstice forward approximately three days every four centuries, arriving to December 12 during the 16th century. By the time the Nordic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar, the winter solstice fell exactly on December 13. It is possible to reconcile both statements if "the shortest day" is interpreted as the day when the year's earliest sunset.
This timing, and her name meaning light, is a factor in the particular devotion to St. Lucy in Scandinavian countries, where young girls dress as the saint in honor of the feast. The candles symbolize the fire that refused to take St. Lucia's life when she was sentenced to be burned. The women sing a Lucia song while entering the room, to the melody of the traditional Neapolitan song Santa Lucia.
Lucia meaning light, Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the blind, the eyes, the electricians and the oculists. Possibly, the origins of the choice of date is to be found in the fact that it falls 12 days before Christmas (Winter solstice) as both her name and the way she is represented points towards the celebration of light or solar worship.
In Italy, a special devotion to St. Lucy is present in the regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli, Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, in the North of the country, and Sicily, in the South. In traditional celebrations, Saint Lucy comes as a young woman with lights and sweets. In Nothern Italy Santa Lucia is celebrated similarly to the Saint Nicholas tradition. She arrives in the company of a donkey and her escort, Castaldo and brings the good children gifts in the night between December 12 and 13. Children are asked to leave some coffee for Lucia, some flour for the donkey and bread for Castaldo. They must not watch Santa Lucia delivering these gifts, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them.
The city of Syracuse honors Saint Lucy every year with a week long celebration with festivities and fireworks, sweets and the vow not to eat pasta or bread. Cuccìa is eaten in memory of Saint Lucy's miraculous averting of famine. According to the legend the Saint rescued the Syracusans when two ships, loaded with wheat, miraculously arrived in Syracuse, affected by a harsh amine. The starving population was so desperate to eat that they boiled the wheat and ate it simply dressed with olive oil. This was the first cuccia ever made. The sweet cuccìa was made by adding cooked wine or honey. It is said that the large grains of soft wheat are representative of her eyes and are a treat only to be indulged in once a year. Later on, the chickpeas and fava beans were added to the recipe. Every town and every home in Sicily has its own recipe for cuccìa.
Pala di Santa Lucia
by Lorenzo Lotto, 1352
The custom of starting celebrations 12 days before Christmas (Advent) and ending them 12 days after Christmas ("The Twelve Days of Christmas") is known in various Northern-European countries, with various ancient cults falling around that date, such as the Icelandic Yule Lads appearing on December 13 and the end of Christmas being celebrated with bonfires and fireworks on January 6. Similarly, in Italy the tradition of La Befana on January 6 is a big part of Italian Christmas celebrations.
12th-century mosaic on the facade of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere showing virgin saints carrying lamps, as an allusion to a custom popular on December 13, St Lucy's day. Photo by Lawrence OP.