BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
SANTA LUCIA Part I: Background
Read SWEDISH CHRISTMAS TRADITION WITH ITALIAN ROOTS
I am of German, Czecz and Norwegian ancestry, but have always identified more with the Scandinavian part, probably because I spent so much time with my Norwegian Grandmother and Maternal Aunt who lived in a small town in Wisconsin, Mt. Horeb near Madison. It seemed as though everyone in that town was Norwegian, with a few Swedes thrown in for good measure. All the festivals and celebrations were reminiscent of Norway—the food, costumes and customs.
I was also raised Lutheran. In our church, we celebrated Santa Lucia day. When I was in 8th grade, I was chosen to be Santa Lucia. The good news was that it was an honor to be chosen. The bad news was that it was necessary to walk down the very long isle of the sanctuary with a wreath of lit candles on my head without setting myself and the church on fire. Luckily I made it through.
I also attended a very large Santa Lucia festival in Wisconsin which I will always remember because of all the candles, beautiful music and ambiance.
St. Lucy is believed to have been a Sicilian saint who suffered a sad death in Syracuse, Sicily around 310AD. It is said she was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the Shrine of Saint Agnes in her native Sicily, when an angel appeared to her in a dream beside the shrine. As a result Lucy became a devout Christian, refused to compromise her virginity in marriage and was denounced to the Roman authorities by the man she would have wed.
They threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her and lit it, but she would not stop speaking, insisting that her death would lessen the fear of it for other Christians and bring grief to non-believers.
One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop these denouncements but it had no effect on her. Unable to move her or burn her, a guard took out her eyes. Various paintings of her show her holding a plate with her eyes on them. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. St Lucy was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrament. In another story, St. Lucy was working to help Christians hiding in the catacombs during the terror under Rome and in order to bring with her as many supplies as possible, she needed to have both hands free. She solved this problem by attaching candles to a wreath on her head.
St.Lucia/ Lucy is one of the only saints celebrated by the overwhelmingly Lutheran Nordic peoples. The celebrations retain many indigenous Germanic pagan, pre-Christian midwinter elements. Some of the practices associated with the day predate the adoption of Christianity in Scandinavia and like much of Scandinavian folklore and even religiosity, is centered on the annual struggle between light and darkness. The Nordic observation of St. Lucy is first attested to in the Middle Ages and continued after the Protestant Reformation in the 1520’s and 1530’s, although the modern celebration is only about 200 years old. It is likely that tradition owes its popularity in the Nordic countries to the extreme changes in daylight hours between the seasons in this region. The pre-Christian holiday of Yule was the most important holiday in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Originally the observance of the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun, it brought about many practices that remain the Advent and Christmas celebrations today. The Yule season was a time for feasting, drinking, gift-giving and gatherings but also the season of awareness and fear of the forces of the dark.
The Lussi Night was December 13. Then Lussi, a female being with evil traits, like a female demon or witch was said to ride through the air with her followers. This might be an echo of the myth of the Wild Hunt in Scandinavia and Europe. Between Lussi Night and Yule, trolls and evil spirits, also spirits of the dead, were thought to be active outside. It was particularly dangerous to be out during Lussi Night. Children who had done mischief had to take special care since Lussi could come down through the chimney and take them away and certain tasks of work in preparation for Yule had to be finished or else Lussi would come to punish the household. It was tradition to stay awake through the Lussinatt to guard oneself and the household against evil and has led to the modern tradition of throwing parties until daybreak.
(SANTA LUCIA Part 2: Modern Celebrations will be posted December 19th.)