Whenever I say, ‘Santa Lucia,’ I can’t help picturing – and, frankly, hearing – Don Knots attempting to sing the traditional Italian song as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show. So many other, better singers have recorded it, but for some reason, Knots’ is the version that sticks in my head.
However, that was not my first interaction with the celebration known as the Feast Day of St. Lucy. I first learned about the primarily Swedish holiday from Kristen’s Surprise, one of the books in Kristen’s American Girl series. Being part Swede and part Italian myself, Santa Lucia Day has become a holiday that fascinates me.
Santa Lucia Day is celebrated on the Feast Day of St. Lucy, an Italian woman who was killed for her beliefs in 304 BCE. Of the earliest martyrs, we often hear about the men who sacrificed their lives for what they believed, but Lucy stands apart as one of the notable females who did the same.
Her fame spread, mixing with legend, Christian practices, and other religious rituals. In Sweden, the story that circulated was of Lucy bringing food to Christians hiding in the catacombs, lighting her way by wearing a wreath of candles on her head. In Scandinavia, her story of light took root and since December 13 was considered the shortest day of the year, Santa Lucia Day celebrations overtook the festival of light. (source)
Though the tradition has changed over time, historically, the eldest daughter would dress in white on Santa Lucia Day and wear a candle wreath on her head, just as Lucy did so long ago. Now a Lucia is chosen by different standards (likely by drawing names), but it is still one of the most popular holidays in all of Sweden.
Santa Lucia Day is also still celebrated in Italy. Though it is still a celebration of light, it doesn’t have the poignancy as it does in more northern climes. Instead, Italians tend to focus on the gift giving part of St. Lucy’s story. In certain cities, she even replaces the male Santa figure as the one who gives presents to good children.
There is so much about Santa Lucia Day that I love. First, it highlights an historic female. How often is a woman at the root of an entire nation’s most important holiday?
Second, Lucy represents light. Not just because of the legend of her wearing candles in the catacombs but because her name also means ‘light.’ With her feast day coming on what used to be the shortest day of the year (before the calendar was changed), her celebration lines up with the winter solstice. After months of watching the sun set earlier and earlier, we have finally reached the day when the darkness begins to recede. What’s not to celebrate about that?
Putting St. Lucy on hold for a moment, last week I talked about Advent and commemorating the days leading up to Christmas. This week’s advent concept is peace. When I think of Christmas, peace is one of the first qualities that comes to mind. Snow softly falling. Silent evenings. Peace on earth and goodwill to men.
I think the timing is fortuitous. Darkness tends to breed agitation, uncertainty, suspicion. When light overcomes darkness, it spreads peace. Really, isn’t that what peace on earth is all about? Spreading the light of peace to every broken, hurting soul in the world? That’s what Lucy did by bringing food to those hiding in the darkness of the catacombs. She brought supplies, nourishment, and comfort.
With the Make it Monday series about creative ways to promote self-care, the idea of peace is huge. The opposite of peace is stress and stress is a common trigger for anxiety, illness flares, and cranky moods. Peace has a difficult time flourishing in such situations. Perhaps a celebration of light, of goodness, will bring about the peace needed to bring calm during this often harried time of year.
One of the easiest ways to remind oneself of light and peace is to literally light a candle. I love candles, perhaps it’s for this reason. They always bring a sense of rightness to the world. For those that love scents, scented candles can add another layer of calm. Unscented or battery powered candles work just as well. It’s about the ambiance. A visual reminder of peace.
If you’d like to make a more elaborate event, especially if you have daughters or nieces, celebrating Santa Lucia Day on December 13 can be incredibly fun. It’s also not a complex holiday. A white dress, robe, or sheet for the chosen Lucia to wear, a wreath with battery powered candles to place on her head, and a red sash or rope to wear around her waist. This can remind the women in your life, both old and young, that each of you matter, that each of you can make a life long difference by bringing light and peace to those around you.
Another fun activity to commemorate Santa Lucia Day is to make Lussekatt or Lucia Buns, Gingerbread cookies, and a warm beverage like coffee, cider, or hot cocoa. For the Lussekatt recipe, check out the one on this Scholastic page. I haven’t tried it, so you’ll have to leave a comment below if you do.
I would love to see more of us celebrate Santa Lucia Day. St. Lucy impacted those around her in such a phenomenal way that her story is one we still tell (with likely embellishment) centuries later.
She spread peace and light, a perfect paring for midwinter and the day the sun sets the earliest. Plus Christmas is just around the corner and it’s the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who we call the Light of the World, the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God with us.
In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his Civil War poem I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:
Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Happy Santa Lucia!