Once, when I was a little girl, I had a friend who was so very excited about representing Saint Lucia at her church. St. Lucy was her favorite Saint, because my friend’s name was Lucy, too. This was a new tradition to me, and I found her stories of St. Lucy fascinating. As I grew older, I learned more and when I was in Germany in 1993, I attended mass on Saint Lucia’s Day and was completely charmed by the production. It’s not a surprise, I guess, that I read stories of Saint Lucia to my son, and bake ginger snaps often on the 13th of December.
But who was she before she became Saint Lucy?
Lucia of Syracuse was born to a wealthy family but her father, a Roman Patrician, died when she was young. Her mother, a woman of Greek descent named Eutychia, was sickly. Lucia decided as a teenager to consecrate her virginity to the Christian God and donate her wealth to the poor. Unfortunately, her mother, worried about the future of her daughter and not knowing of her plans, promised her daughter in marriage to a man from a wealthy Pagan family.
Wanting out of the marriage, Lucia convinced her mother to travel to Catania to visit the shrine of St. Agatha, in hopes of curing her mother’s illness. Eutychia was indeed cured, and as a result Lucia was able to convince her mother to let her go unmarried and to give her wealth to the poor.
Diocletian and the persecution of Christians arrested Lucia twice.
Meanwhile, Rome was struggling as empire, facing attack on all sides. In an effort to strengthen Rome against enemy attacks, the Emperor Diocletian decided to reassert the Roman polytheistic religion. In 303 CE, he made three edicts that initiated one of the worst persecutions of Christians to that date in Rome. The first edict mandated the destruction of all Christian churches and writings. The second led to the arrest and either death or enslavement of many of the Christian clergy. The third made it illegal to practice Christianity, leading to the death and/or enslavement of the lay practitioners of the faith.
Lucia, already known by now for her good works with the poor, now turned her help to Christians who were hiding to avoid persecution, bringing them food and drink to their hiding places in the catacombs of the city. It is said that she wore a wreath of candles on her head to light her way as her hands were full.
Her former fiancé, angry that she had rejected him, denounced her to the Roman governor Paschasius as a Christian. The Governor ordered her to make a sacrifice to one of the Roman Gods, which she refused to do, so he ordered her to be made a prostitute in a brothel. But when the guards came for her, they could not move her, not even with the aid of oxen. So he ordered her to be burned, and they piled wood around her, but the wood would not burn.
Lucia’s death and martyrdom.
Eventually she was killed by a sword. Later accounts of the story say that before she died, she prophesied that the Paschasius would be punished and that Diocletian’s reign would end, and that this angered Paschasius and he ordered her eyes removed as a result, but when she was buried her eyes were miraculously restored. Other miracles associated with St. Lucia followed, as well as her predictions came true.
How and when is Saint Lucia’s Day celebrated?
Her feast day is popular in European countries and is thought of as a festival of light, particularly in Scandinavia. Originally celebrated on the Winter Solstice, it was shifted when the calendar was reformed to its current date during advent, December 13th. In many countries, the day is marked by a procession with a young girl, dressed in white with a red sash symbolizing martyrdom wearing a wreath of candles. In addition to the procession, girls dressed as St. Lucia might distribute baked goods such as Pepparkakor (ginger snaps); another popular food for St. Lucia’s day in Scandinavia is Lussekatts, or Saffron bread.
So, you can see why as a little girl, I found St. Lucy fascinating. Happy St. Lucia’s Day to you all, and I hope you continue to enjoy the holiday season.
The Researcher’s Gateway Team
Books on Saint Lucy (St. Lucia)
Other Holiday Traditions
- Christmas Stockings, A Brief History
- Christmas Tinsel: The Legend of the Christmas Spider
- St. Nicholas of Myra (Santa Claus)