St. Lucy's Day

St. Lucy's Day

Santa Lucia

In Sweden the Christmas season begins on December 13, St. Lucy's Day. St. Lucy's Day celebrations feature girls who dress and act as the saint. Crowned with wreaths of greenery studded with glowing candles, they sing songs about St. Lucy and distribute gifts of food. In North America, some Swedish families, churches, schools, and institutions also celebrate St. Lucy's Day. Italy, the country of Lucy's birth, honors her feast day as well.

Life and Legends of St. Lucy

St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia, lived in Syracuse, a town on the Italian island of Sicily, during the late third and early fourth centuries. The many legends of her life vary somewhat, offering accounts of some or all of the following events.

Although Lucy was a Christian, her great beauty attracted the attention of a pagan nobleman. He pursued her but she rejected him. When he told Lucy that her beautiful eyes "haunted him day and night," she tore her eyes out and sent them to him, hoping to be left in peace. God restored them in recognition of her willing sacrifice, however. In another effort to escape marriage, Lucy distributed her dowry among the poor. This act so angered her suitor that he informed religious authorities of her adherence to the then-illegal Christian faith. The authorities demanded that she perform a sacrifice to the pagan gods. She refused and was sent to a brothel. When this attempt to punish her failed, she was taken to prison. She again refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods, whereupon she was condemned to death. The first attempts to execute her failed as God again intervened on Lucy's behalf. The guards sent to fetch the girl from her cell found they could not move her. In an effort to carry out their orders they put ropes around her, then set the floor on fire. When neither of these tricks enabled them to move the saint, they stabbed her in the neck. It is believed that she died in 303


Scholars agree that the legend of St. Lucy contains more fiction that fact. Nevertheless, her cult flourished in Syracuse as early as the fifth century. In the sixth and seventh centuries it spread to the Italian cities of Rome and Ravenna. Eventually her fame stretched across Europe, and she became one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. Artists often depicted her carrying her eyes in a dish or holding the palm of martyrdom and a lamp. Some portrayed her with a sword thrust through her throat. People invoked the aid of St. Lucy for afflictions of the eyes and throat.

Although her feast day currently falls on December 13, before the sixteenth-century Gregorian calendar reform (see also Old Christmas Day), St. Lucy's Day fell on the winter solstice. Legends claimed that the saint blinded herself on this, the shortest day of the year. In fact, her name, Lucia, comes from the Latin word for "light," lux. Thus, many old folk customs invoked Lucy as a symbol of light, especially the light that coincides with the lengthening of days after the winter solstice.

St. Lucy's Day is especially celebrated in the country of her birth, Italy, and in Scandinavia. How did this Italian saint develop a following in the land of the Vikings? When the people of the cold, dark North converted to Christianity around 1000 special fondness for the saint whose feast day marked the return of the sun and whose name itself means "light." Over the centuries they kindled many flames and fires in her name. At one time people in northern Europe lit "St. Lucy's fires" on the evening of her feast day. They threw incense into the flames and bathed in the smoke, which was said to protect one from witchcraft, disease, and other dangers. While this was happening, others played music to accompany the sun's changing course. An old Scandinavian custom forbade all turning motions on St. Lucy's Day, including spinning, stirring, and working a grindstone. Superstitions warned that these circular motions might interfere with the sun's change of course.

Folk belief also hinted that miracles occurred at midnight on St. Lucy's Eve. The few souls awake and alert at this potent hour might hear cattle speaking or see running water turn into wine. In past times many believed that the saint had the power to shorten the winter season. This belief led to the custom of writing her name and drawing a picture of a girl alongside it on doors and fences in the hopes that the saint would hasten the end of winter. Another old custom encouraged people to keep a candle burning in their home all day long on her feast day.

St. Lucy's Day in Italy

In Italy St. Lucy is called Santa Lucia. St. Lucy's Day is observed throughout the country, but is especially honored in Sicily. The day has traditionally been celebrated with bonfires, processions, and other illuminations. In Sicily St. Lucy, dressed in a blue cloak showered with stars, brings gifts to children on the eve of her feast day. Children leave their shoes outside on St. Lucy's Eve in order to collect her offerings. Sicilians also remember the miracle that St. Lucy performed when famine struck the island. According to legend, hunger had weakened so many that the people of Syracuse went as a group to the church to ask the saint to deliver them. While they were praying, a ship loaded with grain sailed into the harbor. For this reason Italians celebrate St. Lucy's Day by eating a boiled wheat dish called cuccia or cuccidata. Lucy is the patron saint of the Italian cities of Syracuse and Milan.

St. Lucy's Day in Sweden

In Sweden today, St. Lucy's Day, or Luciadagen, marks the beginning of the Christmas season. The family celebrates this day in a special way. One daughter acts as the "Lucy bride." She gets up very early and prepares coffee and buns for the family. These buns are called Lussenkatter, or "Lucy cats." She dresses in a white robe with a red sash and carefully places a wreath of ligon berry leaves and lit candles on her head. Attired thus as St. Lucy, she brings the simple breakfast to each bedroom, awakening family members with a song about the saint. According to old traditions, this St. Lucy's Day breakfast should be served very early in the morning, between one and four a.m.

Varying traditions suggest that the oldest, youngest, or prettiest girl perform this role. The other girls in the family may follow her, dressed in white robes and crowned with tinsel halos. The boys may participate as starngossar, or star boys. They also dress in white. In addition, they wear tall, pointed hats made of silver paper and carry star-topped scepters. These Swedish customs have spread to Finland, Norway, and Denmark.

Over the years many other folk beliefs and customs also attached themselves to St. Lucy's Day. Old folklore in rural areas advised farmers to thresh all the grain from the year's harvest by St. Lucy's Day. The season's spinning and weaving were also to be completed by that day. Other traditions suggested that farmers slaughter the Christmas pig (see also Boar's Head) on St. Lucy's Day and that cooks bury the lutfisken, a traditional Christmas fish, in beech ashes on St. Lucy's Day in order for it to be ready by Christmas. Folklore also advised housewives to finish their Christmas cleaning and decorating by this day.

Origins of Swedish St. Lucy's Day

No one knows exactly when and how Swedes came to revere St. Lucy in this way. Some compare the symbols connected with the Lucy bride to those associated with Freya, a goddess from Scandinavia's pagan past. The pagan god Frey, to whom sacrifices were offered at Yule, had a sister named Freya. The ancient Scandinavians associated Freya with love, fertility, war, and wealth. She wore a bright necklace and drove a chariot pulled by cats.

Other folklorists contend that Lucy and her story are thoroughly Christian. Historians suspect that the custom of the Lucy bride developed in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Some connect it with a Swedish legend concerning the saint's miraculous intervention during a famine. This legend closely resembles the Sicilian tale told above. One winter a terrible famine ravaged Sweden. During the longest night of the year, when the sufferings caused by cold, dark, and hunger were at their peak, a mysterious ship suddenly appeared on Lake Vannern. A woman dressed in white, her face radiating light, stood at the prow of the ship. It was St. Lucy. She guided the ship into harbor and delivered the stores of food it contained to the poor and hungry.

Recent Traditions

Although originally part of a family celebration, the role of the Lucy bride has spread to offices, schools, and other public institutions. Like the Lucys of home celebrations, these public Lucys wear white gowns and a crown of candles. They and their followers bring gifts of food, song, and light to co-workers, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Students playing the role of Lucy sometimes surprise favorite teachers in the early morning. Lucy and her followers also visit hotel guests, hospital patients, and even early-morning commuters and policemen.

During the past thirty or forty years villages and cities all over Sweden began to select their own Lucy queens. Often they organize a parade for the winner, who may be accompanied by youths dressed as star boys, biblical figures, trolls (see also Jultomten), or other related characters. In Stockholm the judges must select their Lucy from among hundreds of competitors. Each year the honor of crowning Stockholm's Lucy bride goes to the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.

Further Reading

Ekstrand, Florence. Lucia Child of Light. Seattle, Wash.: Welcome Press, 1989. Foley, Daniel J. Christmas the World Over. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 1963. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Italy. Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1979. ---. Christmas in Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977. Ryan, E. G. "Lucy, St." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 8. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1994. ---. 46 Days of Christmas. New York: Coward-McCann, 1960. Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

St. Lucy's Day (Luciadagen)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 13
Where Celebrated: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, United States
Symbols and Customs: Candles, Eyes, Lucia Cats
Colors: St. Lucy's Day is associated with the colors white and red. In Scandinavia, it is traditional to observe this day by dressing the oldest daughter in the family in a white robe tied with a crimson sash.
Related Holidays: Winter Solstice


According to tradition, St. Lucy or Santa Lucia was born in Syracuse, Sicily, in the third century. She was so beautiful that she attracted the unwanted attentions of a pagan nobleman, to whom she was betrothed against her will. In an attempt to end the affair, she cut out her EYES , which her suitor claimed "haunted him day and night." But God restored them as a reward for her sacrifice. She then gave away her entire dowry to the poor people of Syracuse. This made her lover so angry that he tried to force her to perform a sacrifice to his pagan gods. She refused and was taken off to prison. There she was again ordered to perform the sacrifice or be condemned to death. But when the soldiers tried to move her to the place of execution, they could not budge her. They lit a fire on the floor around her, used ropes and pulleys, and finally stabbed her in the neck with a dagger. For this reason she is the patron saint for protection from throat infections.

According to the Julian or Old Style calendar, St. Lucy blinded herself on the WINTER SOLSTICE -the shortest, darkest day of the year. When the Vikings were converted to Christianity, they adopted the Italian saint as the day's patroness because her name, Lucia, meant "light." To the sun-starved inhabitants of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, this was the joyful day after which winter began yielding to spring, and they brought to it many of their pagan light and fire customs (see CANDLES ). Their belief in the saint's power to break winter's spell gave rise to the popular folk custom of writing her name on doors and fences, along with the drawing of a girl, in the hope that Lucia would drive winter away.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for. St. Lucy as well as other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

In Sweden, where St. Lucy's Day is known as Luciadagen, it marks the official start of the CHRISTMAS season. Before sunrise on December 13, the oldest (or, in some cases, the prettiest) girl in the house goes among the sleeping family members dressed in a white robe with a red sash and wearing a metal crown covered with whortleberry (sometimes lingonberry) leaves and encircled by nine lighted CANDLES . The younger girls also dress in white and wear haloes of glittering tinsel. The boys-known as Starngossar or Star Boys-wear white robes and tall coneshaped hats made of silver paper, and they carry star-topped scepters. The "Lucia Bride," as she is called, leads the Star Boys and younger girls through the house, awakening the rest of the family by singing a special song and bringing them coffee and buns (see LUCIA CATS ).

The Lucy celebrations were brought to the United States by Swedish immigrants, whose customs survive in Swedish-American communities throughout the country. Chicago holds a major citywide festival on the afternoon of December 13 each year at the downtown Chicago Civic Center. A similar celebration takes place in Philadelphia, with Swedish Christmas songs, folk dances, and a procession of Lucia brides.



The bonfires traditionally kindled on the WINTER SOLSTICE were designed to encourage the return of the sun at the darkest time of year. Even after the arrival of Christianity and the New Style calendar, light and fire were considered an essential part of St. Lucy's Day observations. The candles that the Lucia bride wears in her crown are one of the forms of light associated with this holiday. It was also common at one time for people to keep candles burning in their homes all day on December 13. Although St. Lucy's Day now falls several days before the solstice, it is still associated with light and the lengthening days.


St. Lucy is often shown carrying her eyes on a platter, although there is no support for this in early accounts of her life. The eyes are a familiar symbol associated with St. Lucy's Day

the saint, however, and they serve as a good example of how a symbolic idea can be converted into a fact. Her name in Latin, Lucia, comes from lux, meaning "light." St. Lucy was often invoked by the blind for this reason, and eventually this gave rise to the story that she blinded herself by gouging out her eyes. Both the eyes and the lamp that Lucy is often shown carrying symbolize her divine light and wisdom.

Lucia Cats

Special buns are served on the morning of December 13. Although they come in a variety of shapes, the most popular are the Lussekatter or "Lucia cats," with raisins for eyes and baked dough that curls up at either end.

Cats have been a symbol of good luck since ancient times. They were also used as a sign to keep the devil out of the house, because he was believed to appear in the form of a cat.


Appleton, LeRoy H., and Stephen Bridges. Symbolism in Liturgical Art. New York: Scribner, 1959. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.


Skansen Museum in Stockholm, Sweden
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

St. Lucy's Day

December 13
According to tradition, St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia, was born in Syracuse, Sicily, in the third or fourth century. She was endowed with a fatal beauty that eventually attracted the unwanted attentions of a pagan nobleman, to whom she was betrothed against her will. She is the patron saint of the blind because in an attempt to end the affair, she supposedly cut out her eyes, which her suitor claimed "haunted him day and night." But God restored her eyes as a reward for her sacrifice. She was then probably killed by a sword thrust through her throat. Because of this she is the patron saint for protection from throat infections.
St. Lucy allegedly blinded herself on the shortest, darkest day of the year ( see Winter Solstice), and she later became a symbol of the preciousness of light. Her day is widely celebrated in Sweden as Luciadagen, which marks the official beginning of the Christmas season. Lucy means "light," and to the sun-starved inhabitants of Scandinavia, she often appears in a shining white robe crowned by a radiant halo.
It is traditional to observe Luciadagen by dressing the oldest daughter in the family in a white robe tied with a crimson sash. Candles are set into her crown, which is covered with lingonberry leaves. The younger girls are also dressed in white and given haloes of glittering tinsel. The boys—called Starngossar, or Star Boys—wear white robes and tall cone-shaped hats, made of silver paper, and carry star-topped scepters.
The "Lucia Bride" with her crown of burning candles, followed by the Star Boys, younger girls, and dancing children, called tomten, or "gnomes," wakens each member of the household on the morning of December 13 with a tray of coffee and special saffron buns or ginger cookies.
Although this is a family celebration, the Lucia tradition nowadays is observed in schools, offices, and hotels as well. Specially chosen Lucias and their attendants visit hospitals to cheer up the sick and elderly. The largest public celebration in Sweden takes place in Stockholm, where hundreds of girls compete for the title of "Stockholm Lucia."
From Sweden the Lucy celebrations spread to Finland, Norway, and Denmark. Swedish immigrants brought St. Lucy's Day to the United States, and the Swedish customs survive in Swedish-American communities throughout the country.
In Rockford, Illinois, for example, the St. Lucy's Day program is staged by the Swedish Historical Society at the Erlander Home Museum. The young woman chosen as Lucia on this day has to meet certain criteria, such as participation in Swedish classes, contributions to Swedish culture, or membership in one of Rockford's many Swedish societies.
At Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, freshmen in the women's dormitories traditionally are awakened at three o'clock in the morning by a white-clad Lucia bearing coffee and baked goods. St. Lucy's Day is also observed by Swedish Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, Chicago, and San Diego.
Skansen Museum
P.O. Box 27807
Stockholm, S-11593 Sweden
Erlander Home Museum
404 S. Third St.
Rockford, IL 61104
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 687
BkFest-1937, pp. 191, 312
BkFestHolWrld-1970, pp. 132, 133
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 313
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 668
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 101, 217
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 494
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 699
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 166
OxYear-1999, p. 497
RelHolCal-2004, p. 85
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 20
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
In a related story, "St. Lucy's Day," a young Swedish woman feels she must choose between the city she loves (New Orleans) and the woman she loves, who has returned to her own siren city.
The Festival of Light, which opened on St. Lucy's Day, December 13, 1999, runs for an entire year, bringing together selections of photography from FotoFest's companion events in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Venezuela.

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