Throughout Scandinavia and especially Sweden, the feast of St. Lucy on December 13th holds a special place on the liturgical calendar. Associated today with the lights and laughter of Christmas, the roots of this holy day are much darker.
Before science proved otherwise, December 13th was commonly considered the darkest point of the year. In nations where darkness reigns at wintertime due to their extreme northern location, a celebration developed to mark the transition from darkness to light. The pre-Christian season of Yule honored the winter solstice and the return of the sun through feasting, gift giving, and other gatherings. Such activities would hopefully keep one safe from the evil forces that lurked as an ever present danger.
One such danger was Lussi, a female demon who was thought to actively roam on December 13th. She would ride through the air with her followers, the Lussiferda. It would be dangerous to walk alone in the darkness. People feared falling asleep and becoming her victim. In some traditions, she might even come down the chimney to snatch away misbehaving children. Throwing all night parties seemed to remedy her threat.
Much later and far away in Italy, Lucy (sharing the Latin root for light, lux) was born in 283 CE. In Italian, she is known as Santa Lucia. Details of her life are sketchy and often tinged with myth, but she seems to have been a devoted Christian woman known for her generosity and faithfulness. The core of the story indicates she was pledged to a pagan for marriage. Lucy’s heart was elsewhere. She wanted to devote her life to Jesus Christ. Instead of using her dowry for marriage, she gave it to the poor. One story accounts that she wore a wreath with candles atop it to keep her hands free in order to deliver more assistance to her fellow Christians in the catacombs. Word came to her betrothed that she had found a more suitable bridegroom. In anger, he turned Lucy over to the local Roman authority, the magistrate Paschasius.
Here the stories vary, but what seems certain is that Lucy refused to marry her intended husband or reject Christ even under torture. She was perhaps blinded, thus hagiographic images of Lucy often show her eyes on a plate of some kind. Yet, this part of the story didn’t appear until the 15th Century in any known writings. However she met her end, it is uniformly reported she did so with faith in Christ even unto death in 304 CE. She is remembered as a martyr, thus her feast day’s liturgical color is red.
Lucy’s legacy is not that of Lussi, yet in the northern European lands, there stories somewhat merged. The light of Christ which shined so brightly through this young virgin’s life now became associated with the winter solstice. She doesn’t break into the home through the chimney. No one hides in fear. Instead a young girl is often selected to represent her and bear gifts (usually foods such as Lussekatt – a “St. Lucia Bun” – made with saffron) to her family, singing songs and wearing a wreath with lit candles around it. The song lyrics vary, but they have the Italian tune Santa Lucia. Today, many cities in Northern Europe have public processions to remember Lucy.
This is the English translation to one version called “Night Walks with a Heavy Step”[i]:
Night walks with a heavy step
Round yard and hearth,
As the sun departs from earth,
Shadows are brooding.
There in our dark house,
Walking with lit candles,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Night walks grand, yet silent,
Now hear its gentle wings,
In every room so hushed,
Whispering like wings.
Look, at our threshold stands,
White-clad with light in her hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Darkness shall take flight soon,
From earth’s valleys.
So she speaks a Wonderful Word to us:
A new day will rise again From the rosy sky…
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
So whether in Italian (Santa Lucia), Swedish (Sankta Lucia), or English (Saint Lucy), this woman shouldn’t be confused with the burglarizing evil spirit or witch of old legends. Lucy is her own woman, not just a remake from paganism. She deserves to be remembered for her Christian witness through her ordinary life. She can serve as an inspiration for us to let the light of Christ shine through us. She is just one of a great cloud of witnesses God has used to break into the darkness of our world.
Like Lucy, we are children of that same light. We are innocent of all charges against us, real or imagined, through faith in the Son of God who came as a child in Bethlehem long ago. All powers of evil, sin and death raged against him then, but “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). We are asked to serve as his living symbols, an assurance that he once came that Christmas long ago, but also proof that he is risen. We remain signs pointing to the truth that he will come again. We do this through boldly loving in his name, even unto death, for we know we shall share in his final victory. “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling” (1 John 2:10). In Christ, we shall find forgiveness, new life, and a love we never dared hope for.
When Jesus finally does come at the end of the age, a new everlasting day shall rise. Darkness will forever take flight. “And there will be no more night; [those who trusted in him] need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). With Lucy and all the communion of saints, we await and announce his coming.
Let us pray:
Lord God, Saint Lucy did not hide her light under a bushel, but let your light shine for the whole world, for all the centuries, to see. We may not suffer torture the way she did, but we are still called to let the light of our faith illumine our daily lives and the lives of others. Help us to have the courage to bring our faith into our work, our recreation, our relationships, our conversations, and every corner of this day. Amen[i]
Merry Christmas! Buon Natele! God Jul!
[i] Variation of a Roman Catholic prayer and one seen in a devotion by Bishop Kanouse of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, ELCA)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2012 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.