Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 13
Where Celebrated: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, United States
Symbols and Customs: Candles, Eyes, Lucia Cats
Colors: St. Lucy's Day is associated with the colors white and red. In Scandinavia, it is traditional to observe this day by dressing the oldest daughter in the family in a white robe tied with a crimson sash.
Related Holidays: Winter Solstice
According to tradition, St. Lucy or Santa Lucia was born in Syracuse, Sicily, in the third century. She was so beautiful that she attracted the unwanted attentions of a pagan nobleman, to whom she was betrothed against her will. In an attempt to end the affair, she cut out her EYES, which her suitor claimed “haunted him day and night.” But God restored them as a reward for her sacrifice. She then gave away her entire dowry to the poor people of Syracuse. This made her lover so angry that he tried to force her to perform a sacrifice to his pagan gods. She refused and was taken off to prison. There she was again ordered to perform the sacrifice or be condemned to death. But when the soldiers tried to move her to the place of execution, they could not budge her. They lit a fire on the floor around her, used ropes and pulleys, and finally stabbed her in the neck with a dagger. For this reason she is the patron saint for protection from throat infections.
According to the Julian or Old Style calendar, St. Lucy blinded herself on the WINTER SOLSTICE—the shortest, darkest day of the year. When the Vikings were converted to Christianity, they adopted the Italian saint as the day's patroness because her name, Lucia, meant “light.” To the sun-starved inhabitants of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, this was the joyful day after which winter began yielding to spring, and they brought to it many of their pagan light and fire customs (see CANDLES). Their belief in the saint's power to break winter's spell gave rise to the popular folk custom of writing her name on doors and fences, along with the drawing of a girl, in the hope that Lucia would drive winter away.
The basis of saint day remembrances—for. St. Lucy as well as other saints—is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.
In Sweden, where St. Lucy's Day is known as Luciadagen, it marks the official start of the CHRISTMAS season. Before sunrise on December 13, the oldest (or, in some cases, the prettiest) girl in the house goes among the sleeping family members dressed in a white robe with a red sash and wearing a metal crown covered with whortleberry (sometimes lingonberry) leaves and encircled by nine lighted CANDLES. The younger girls also dress in white and wear haloes of glittering tinsel. The boys—known as Starngossar or Star Boys—wear white robes and tall coneshaped hats made of silver paper, and they carry star-topped scepters. The “Lucia Bride,” as she is called, leads the Star Boys and younger girls through the house, awakening the rest of the family by singing a special song and bringing them coffee and buns (see LUCIA CATS).
The Lucy celebrations were brought to the United States by Swedish immigrants, whose customs survive in Swedish-American communities throughout the country. Chicago holds a major city wide festival on the afternoon of December 13 each year at the downtown Chicago Civic Center. A similar celebration takes place in Philadelphia, with Swedish Christmas songs, folk dances, and a procession of Lucia brides.
The bonfires traditionally kindled on the WINTER SOLSTICE were designed to encourage the return of the sun at the darkest time of year. Even after the arrival of Christianity and the New Style calendar, light and fire were considered an essential part of St. Lucy's Day observations. The candles that the Lucia bride wears in her crown are one of the forms of light associated with this holiday. It was also common at one time for people to keep candles burning in their homes all day on December 13. Although St. Lucy's Day now falls several days before the solstice, it is still associated with light and the lengthening days.
St. Lucy is often shown carrying her eyes on a platter, although there is no support for this in early accounts of her life. The eyes are a familiar symbol associated with the saint, however, and they serve as a good example of how a symbolic idea can be converted into a fact. Her name in Latin, Lucia, comes from lux, meaning “light.” St. Lucy was often invoked by the blind for this reason, and eventually this gave rise to the story that she blinded herself by gouging out her eyes. Both the eyes and the lamp that Lucy is often shown carrying symbolize her divine light and wisdom.
Special buns are served on the morning of December 13. Although they come in a variety of shapes, the most popular are the Lussekatter or “Lucia cats,” with raisins for eyes and baked dough that curls up at either end.
Cats have been a symbol of good luck since ancient times. They were also used as a sign to keep the devil out of the house, because he was believed to appear in the form of a cat.
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