The astronomical winter solstice will not occur for a week or so, but the shortest day on the Christian calendar is that associated with the Feast of Saint Lucia or Lucy, occurring on December 13. John Donne referenced this connection in his poem A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day: ‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,/ Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;/ The sun is spent, and now his flasks/ Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;/ The world’s whole sap is sunk;/ The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,/Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,/ Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,/ Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.
Lucia’s story is part late antique and part late medieval: the earliest accounts depict her as a young virgin martyr from Sicily who was put to death in the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. She had devoted herself to Christ following the miraculous recovery of her mother from chronic “bloody flux” (dysentery) and afterwards devoted herself to distributing her not-inconsiderable dowry to the poor of the island. Her spurned betrothed turned her over to the Roman authorities, and she was tortured and threatened with “fouling” in a brothel. Her virtue and virginity were maintained by another miraculous intervention which rendered her body immovable, but she was martyred by a sword to her throat (after burning also failed). Her veneration seems almost immediate, and by the sixth century Lucy’s story had spread through much of Europe. Her association with “light” (lux in Latin) seems to come principally from her name, but in the later medieval era she also became a patron saint to the blind and those with eye diseases: we increasingly see her with attributes of eyes (generally on a plate) from the fourteenth century on, and this depiction becomes standard with the Renaissance.
British Library MS Additional 22310 (Venice, 1460-70); Francesco del Cossa, Saint Lucy, 1473-74, National Gallery of Art (and detail); Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Lucy, 1625-30, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Once Lucy became associated with both light and sight, the eyes appear in her depictions and then a story is constructed and grafted onto her hagiography–but it has variations: sometimes Lucy is punished for her vision of the end of Roman rule by the gouging out of her eyes before her martyrdom; in other accounts she gouges them out herself to repel her pagan fiance. Each tales develops its own embellishments: Lucy’s eye’s were so beautiful that both the emperor Maxentius (whose reign would soon end according to her “vision”) and her evil and equally pagan betrothed wanted them gone; Lucy’s faith was so strong that she sacrificed her most beautiful feature so that she could “see” in only that way.
The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy, Watercolor, n.d., Wellcome Library and Images, London.
The equation of “light” with “sight” in these ways, over time, is just one interesting aspect of Lucy’s veneration. Another is its durability–and its range: even after the Reformation she maintained her stature in Protestant Europe and even increased it in largely Lutheran Scandinavia. Lucy/Lucia is venerated in parts of Italy and eastern Europe too, but it’s the Scandinavian rituals that really interest me, because I can’t quite figure out whether they are a continuation or “invention” of tradition. As the first references to Lucia rituals are in the eighteenth century and the first national processions in the twentieth, I’m guessing the latter, but clearly they had a cultural basis that was rooted in both the Christian and pre-Christian past. On December 13, white-clad, red-sashed “Lucias” lead singing processions out onto the streets wearing head wreaths made of lit (by wax or battery) candles; in the home, the household Lucia serves her family a substantial breakfast of special saffron buns (lussekatter–with raisin “eyes”!) after the long winter’s night. These Lucias bring light into their world on the darkest day of the year, when there is none.
Photogravure of St. Lucia’s Day, 1898, Wellcome Library; The crowned Lucia at this year’s Festival of St. Lucia at York Minster, sponsored by the York Anglo-Scandinavian Society (© Ian Forsyth/Getty Images); Carl Larsson’s Christmas Morning, published in “Lasst Licht Hinin”; St. Lucia’s Day Saffron Buns at Simply Recipes.