I’ve been smitten by St. Lucia since I was a little girl, long before I became aware of the church liturgical calendar and Saints days and the glory of Feasting to honor God. No, my family’s not Scandinavian or Italian (the groups that most commonly celebrate St. Lucia as a big deal).
I was just a girl who loved the American Girls Dolls. I had Molly McIntire, a character set in the 1940s, but I read all the books of the dolls that were out back in the 1980s. (All three dolls of them. I’m very old.) Kirsten Lawson represented Pioneer times, and her family *was* of Scandinavian descent, who settled in Minnesota in the 1840s.
Each doll had a Christmas book, and Kirsten’s showed her doing the tradition of a girl in the family dressing up in a white gown, with a red sash, wearing a wreath of candles on her head, handing out sweets to the family…and my 8-year-old soul was enraptured. So much so, that as I laid out my own Eating Liturgical year, St. Lucia was one of the saints I took on as a personal Feast Day. It is so not an Episcopal thang – but it is special to me.
(It just now occurs to me that my interest in and love of these feast day rituals – the food, the traditions, the stories – goes back a really long time!)
St. Lucy/Lucia was a virgin martyr during the earliest centuries of Christianity during the era of Roman persecution. Lucia means “light”, and her feast day is celebrated with candles, torches, and even bonfires. As in many Advent rituals, the imagry of lighting a candle in this darkest time of year is fitting as we anticipate the Light of God about to be born with us, here on earth.
Tradition holds that St. Lucy would wear a wreath of candles on her head so she could see better, her arms full of supplies, as she served the poor Christians hiding from persecution in the dark underground catacombs of Rome. This is another example of how, like with St. Nicholas, we’ve taken traditions from the Saints Days around Christmas on as part of our overall Christmas traditions – giving food, making sweets to share, helping those less fortunate. And, you know, candles.
You can see how Scandinavian countries, with their long dark winters, would embrace this feast day of light. St. Lucy used to coincide with the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
In Scandinavian countries, a young girl dressed in a white dress and a red sash (as the symbol of martyrdom) carries palms and wears a crown or wreath of candles on her head. In both Norway and Sweden, girls dressed as Lucy carry rolls and cookies in procession as songs are sung. It is said that to vividly celebrate St. Lucy’s Day will help one live the long winter days with enough light.
In Italy, the Feast is a Catholic-celebrated holiday with roots that can be traced to Sicily. On 13th of every December it is celebrated with large traditional feasts of home made pasta and various other Italian dishes, with a special dessert of wheat in hot chocolate milk. The large grains of soft wheat are representative of her eyes and are a treat only to be indulged in once a year.
A Hungarian custom is to plant wheat in a small pot on St. Lucy’s feast. By Christmas green sprouts appear, signs of life coming from death. The wheat is then carried to the manger scene as the symbol of Christ in the Eucharist.
In my own home this year, St. Lucia has coincided with Hanukkah (we have lots of religions represented in our family, and so we honor other religious traditions as well as the Christian liturigical calendar), which means I’m not quite up to making St. Lucia’s Braided Bread or Saffron Buns. I’ll try my hand at those traditional sweet breads for St. Lucia next year.
Instead, I think I’ll still eat Fiercely most of the day, and then after dinner we’ll make a ring of candles to join the Advent Wreath and Menorah on our dining room table, and eat some homemade cinnamon raisin muffins (which I have made many times before and won’t have to think too hard about.) I wish I still had my Kirsten Lawson books – I wouldn’t mind reconnecting with my 8-year old self on this day.