What do Norse Vikings, Swedish farmers, an Italian peasant girl, & an English Bishop have in common? Well since today is the feast of St. Lucia you have a clue. The interesting story is in who & the why. Let’s start with the Norse Vikings. According to the old Julian calendar, December 13 was the darkest day. In modern times with our Gregorian calendar, we know this to be the Winter Solstice, usually falling on December 21st or 22nd; the shortest day & the longest night for those of us, like the Vikings, in the Northern Hemisphere. This darkest day was not a day to be out on a boat, better to be inside, possibly burning a log to keep warm -a tradition that would later become part of the winter festival – the burning of the Yule Log. But in those days, December 13 was the time of year when the ancient pagan Scandinavian farmers offered sacrifices in honor of good crops for the coming summer. These sacrifices would usually involve building a ceremonial fire to light the night.
The name Lucia comes from Lux which means light. An old legend from Sweden, names Lucia as the bride of light. The story says that on December 13, Lucia will appear riding in a lusse-cart, similar to a chariot, & if the cart breaks down, you will get lice in your hair. On Lucia night, the threshing of grain must be finished to insure a bountiful crop the next year, the horses should have on winter shoes, & all new-born babies should be baptized before Lucia night or the trolls would come & whisk them away forever. The people who lived in Vermland claimed Lucia was the queen of supernatural beings & was a worker of miracles.
To understand why we celebrate St. Lucia Day today, we need to look at the actual person. An English bishop from the Seventh Century, St. Aldhelm, gave us the story of St. Lucia as we know it today.
Santa Lucia was born around the year 300 A.D. to a wealthy Sicilian family. Although her father died when she was a baby, he left plenty of money for Lucia & her mother to be cared for. As she grew Lucia learned of The Christ & was raised in the Christian faith. She made a secret vow never to marry but instead to spend her life serving the poor. Her mother was unaware of this vow, & pressed her to marry a man who was pagan. Although she resisted, Lucia became engaged to this man.
Around that time, her mother suffered from unexplained bleeding, & Lucia persuaded her to go to the tomb of St. Agatha to pray. Miraculously, her mother was healed. After this, Lucia told her mother of her vow never to marry, & persuaded her that in gratitude to God they should give away their wealth to the poor of the city. So, by candlelight, the mother & daughter went about the city secretly ministering to the poor. Some even said she would bring food to the poor people living in caves, & that because she needed both hands to carry the food, she strapped candles to her head.
As a result of her vow, the young man she had been engaged to was furious. Not only did he lose the opportunity of having the beautiful Lucia as his wife, he also missed out on the great amount of money that would have been her dowry that he would have received in the event of their marriage. He went to the governor & accused her of both being a Christian, & aiding other Christians. At that time, it was illegal to be a Christian. Lucia was called before a judge & given the chance to renounce her faith, but she refused.
The judge ordered her to be taken away & executed, but the soldiers who came to drag her away could not budge her. Instead, they put wood around her & laid a fire beneath her, but the fire would not light. Finally, the judge called forth one of the soldiers & told him to kill her with his sword, which he did.
Many years later, Sweden was in the grip of a terrible famine. At the height of that dark, icy winter, hunger & suffering were at their worst. People were reduced to grinding tree bark to bake into bitter bread. But on the long night of Santa Lucia Day a brilliantly lit ship came sailing across the stormy waters of Lake Vannern. At the helm stood a beautiful young woman dressed all in white, with a face so radiant that there was a glow of light all about her head. As the vessel touched shore, great quantities of food & clothing appeared with her for the starving. When asked her name, she simply replied “Lucia”. When all were fed & cared for, the vessel disappeared as quickly as it had come. To this day, the people of Sweden celebrate the remembrance of Lucia, & how she came to save the people of their country.
The emblem of eyes on a cup or plate recalls her torture & suffering & reflects popular devotion to her as protector of the light which brings sight. In paintings St. Lucy is frequently shown in Gothic art holding her eyes on a golden plate. She also holds the palm branch, symbol of victory over evil.
The story of St. Lucia resonated particularly in Scandinavia where it became mingled with those earlier Norse legends. Today it is one of the very few saint days observed in Scandinavia. Put the two together, the religious & the folklore, & you create a warm & joyous day dedicated to the finding of light in the darkness.
My daughter, who is attending the YIP program in Jarna Sweden called to say, that they do indeed celebrate this joyful fest, which begins before dawn. Traditionally it is the oldest girl in the family rising to make saffron buns & Coffee for her parents. She wears white, with a red sash & a wreath of candles on her head. Other girls in the family are dressed in white as attendants & the boys are dressed as “star boys” with pointy star hats.
In the pedagogy of the Waldorf schools, the 2nd grade studies the Saints, so they take up this festival. The youngest in the class wears the candle crown & the class processes thru the hallways singing:
Santa Lucia, Thy light is glowing
All through the darkest night, comfort bestowing
Dreams float on wings of night,
Comes then the morning light
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
Through silent winter gloom, Thy song comes winging to
Waken the Earth anew, Glad carols bringing,
Come thou, oh queeen of Night,
Wearing thy crown so bright,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
Santa Lucia, Christmas foretelling,
Fill hearts with hope and cheer, Dark fear dispelling,
Bring to the world’s call,
Peace and goodwill to all,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
Falling within the Advent season, Saint Lucy’s Day is viewed as an event signaling the arrival of Christmastide, pointing to the birth of the Light on Christmas Day. It is said that to vividly celebrate Saint Lucy’s Day will help one live the long winter days with enough light.
St. Lucy is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse (Sicily). On 13 December a silver statue of St. Lucy containing her relics is paraded through the streets before returning to the Cathedral. Here, it is traditional to eat whole grains instead of bread on 13 December. This usually takes the form of cuccia, a dish of boiled wheat berries often mixed with ricotta & honey, or sometimes served as a savory soup with beans.
St. Lucy is also popular among children in some regions of North-Eastern Italy, where she is said to bring gifts to good children & coal to bad ones the night between 12 & 13 December. According to tradition, she arrives in the company of a donkey & her escort, Castaldo. Children are asked to leave some coffee for Lucia, a carrot for the donkey & a glass of wine for Castaldo. They must not watch Santa Lucia delivering these gifts, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them.
In Hungary & Croatia, a popular tradition on Saint Lucy’s Day involves planting wheat grains that will eventually be several centimeters high on Christmas; this new wheat serves as symbolic of the new life born in Bethlehem, the Nativity, & a candle is sometimes placed near the new plant “as a symbol of the Light of Christ”.
In Denmark, the Day of Lucy (Luciadag) was first celebrated on 13 December 1944, as an attempt “to bring light in a time of darkness, a passive protest against German occupation during the Second World War, but it has been a tradition ever since.
Historically Norwegians considered what they called Lussinatten the longest night of the year & no work was to be done. Between Lussi Night & Yule, trolls & evil spirits, in some accounts also the spirits of the dead, were thought to be active outside. It was believed to be particularly dangerous to be out during Lussi Night. According to tradition, children who had done mischief had to take special care, since Lussi could come down through the chimney & take them away, & certain tasks of work in the preparation for Yule had to be finished, or else the Lussi would come to punish the household. The tradition of Lussevaka – to stay awake through the Lussinatt to guard oneself & the household against evil, has found a modern form through throwing parties until daybreak. Another company of spirits was said to come riding through the night around Yule itself, journeying through the air, over land & water. This might be an echo of the myth of the Wild Hunt, called Oskoreia in Scandinavia, found across Northern, Western & Central Europe.
Legend also has it that farm animals talked to each other on Lussinatten, & that they were given additional feed on this longest night of the year.
In Saint Lucia, a tiny island in the Caribbean named after its patron saint, St. Lucy, 13 December is celebrated as National Day. The National Festival of Lights & Renewal is held the night before the holiday. In this celebration, decorative lights (mostly bearing a Christmas theme) are lit in the capital city of Castries; artisans present decorated lanterns for competition; & the official activities end with a fireworks display. In the past, a jour ouvert celebration has continued into the sunrise of 13 December.
Dante also mentions Lucia in Inferno Canto II as the messenger “of all cruelty the foe” sent to Beatrice from “The blessed Dame” (Divine Mercy), to rouse Beatrice to send Virgil to Dante’s aid. She has instructed Virgil to guide Dante through Hell & Purgatory.
What would it be like to use this feast day as an opportunity to ‘see’ the growing darkness with eyes of hope, knowing that in the dark womb the light will be reborn, again & yet again.
13 December 2020 – “Speaking with the Stars“: See the Geminid meteor shower – always a highlight of the meteor year – tonight until Monday’s dawn. The peak time a is centered on 1 am. With no moon, the shower is expected to be grand this year!
ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Today is the not only St. Lucia’s feast Day, it is also the 3rd Sunday of Advent dedicated to the Animal kingdom, & the 4th Night of Hanukkah –
THE CALENDAR OF THE SOUL by Rudolf Steiner, translated by Roy Sadler
The Quartet associated with this week’s verse relates the Winter Solstice
(December 21st is most often in the week of v37, but not when Christmas is on
a Thursday, Friday or Saturday) to its complementary verse 5 weeks later, then
its opposite, Summer Solstice verse, coming now in the southern hemisphere,
and finally the verse, after 4 Saint Johnstide ones, in the week of July 24th. On
July 23rd the sun enters the sign of Leo with the eurythmy gesture of Enthusiasm.
So this week of soul transfiguration, with the first mention of the heart since the
1st week of March, as we prepare for the coming Great Jupiter-Saturn Configuration,
has its prescient mirror verse in the Enthusiasm of the Year.
My heart-annointed impulse strives
to bear the spirit light
that shining seeds of soul
take root in cosmic ground,
and in the senses’ dark God’s all-
transfiguring Word resound.
The soul in gloom of winter moved
to bring to light her life’s own force
her impulse is to guide it far
and in the dark forefeel
through warmth of heart
the life the senses will reveal.
It rests this sun’s high hour with you
to recognise the call of wisdom:
In you, absorbed in worlds where beauty lies,
through all your feeling realise:
the human I can lose itself
and find itself within the Cosmic I.
after 4 weeks of Saint Johnstide, culminating
in the soul’s reception of the spirit’s gift in v15
(the mirror of the Christmas verse),
My foresight now demands
I harbour well the spirit’s dower
that its divine gift ripen
and bear the fruit that will endow
my ground of soul with who I am.