The Story of Saint Lucia (and how a Catholic saint came to be celebrated in the Protestant North)

 

 

Saint Lucia

Today is the 13th of December, a day that throughout of Scandinavia and some of Northern Germany is celebrated as The Day of Saint Lucia.

The 13th of December was originally celebrated as a Catholic saint’s day day, so why does the Protestant North celebrate this day under the name of a Catholic Saint?

The Holy Saint Lucia is the patron saint of Syracuse in Italy whose saint’s day falls on the 13th of December. Lucia is thought to have lived during the rule of Diocletian, and it was at the hands of his officials that she faced a martyr’s death.

Lucia, depicted with her eyes in a bowl

The reason that Lucia was painted carrying her eyes outside of their appointed place is that, according to myth, she desired to be a bride of Christ so ardently that she ripped out her eyes so that a man could never see their beauty and fall in love with him.

The story goes that her mother was sick, so the young girl travelled with her mother to the grave of holy Agatha to pray, and during her session of prayer, Lucia saw in a vision that she was to become the patron saint of Syracuse. Her mother became instantly well.

Upon her betterment Lucia’s mother made plans to wed Lucia to a Roman man who, to the Christian Lucia, was a heathen. She refused and refused and the Roman man then vengefully accused her of being a Christian to the officials. They gave her the choice of burning an offering  to the Roman Emperor but Lucia said that she had no more to offer, she had offered it all up to God. It was instead decided to make Lucia the offer and burn her alive, but the men come to fetch her from her mother’s home, could not drag her from the doorstep to the pyre, not even when they used oxen. Lucia said to them that the Holy Spirit was protecting her and the Romans arranged for an executioner to come to her instead and she was killed in her mother’s home. She was martyred and later declared a saint by the church, patron saint of Syracuse and helper of the blind as she was also believed to have plucked out her own eyes, so that no man should see their beauty and fall thus in love.

But how did a Catholic saint’s day come to be celebrated in the Lutheran Scandinavia?

Children at a school walk in the traditional Lucia Procession

Accoir the Julian calender, the 13th of December is the shortest day of the year. (According to the Gregorian calender which we now use, it is the 21st of December that has that particular honour.)

The Swedish have celebrated the Lucia-night (Lusse-nat), from the 16th century onwards, especially in the Western part of the country. In the morninghours of the 13th all the young girls in the household rise early to wake up the rest of the household with coffee and saffron-buns in the pitch-black of the Scandinavian winter mornings. It developed to become a countrywide tradition and to this day every Swedish city elects a Lucia-bride who goes on to the capital, Stockholm, to perhaps become the country’s Lucia-bride. Amongst her prices is a trip to Syracuse.

In Denmark the first Lucia-procession was held during the Nazi occupation of the mid-forties, as a show of peaceful resistance and a reminder of hope. After the war, when candles became readily available again, the tradition spread to the entire country and since then every school and church has held Lucia processions. Amongst the girls a Lucia-bride is chosen and she wears a crown of candles, as well as a candle in her hands. After her come the bridesmaids, with candles in their hands. In the back of the procession walk the usually reluctant boys handing out peppernuts to the onlookers, and alongside the children is a teacher, or other grown-up, carrying a bucket of water in case the crown slips or a child is unobservant with his or her candle.

Everybody wears white gowns with a red ribbon tied around their waist. I’ve walked in four of five processions, since my first school was a Christian one. We had to do a procession in church, school and a retirement home.

I was never the bride. It hurts still 😉