December 10, 2010
Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia, is the patron saint of the blind, but she could probably also qualify as the patron saint of people born in December. As every Sagittarius whose birthday song was drowned out by Christmas carols knows, there’s no competing with the birth of roughly a third of the world’s messiah. But considering that Lucy was herself a devout Christian (which is a prerequisite to becoming a saint, after all), she probably wouldn’t mind that her feast day, December 13, often gets folded into the general Christmas celebration.
Even without its proximity to the season’s main event, St. Lucia’s Day has all the markers of a good holiday: special foods, powerful symbolism and a compelling backstory.
First, the story: Lucia lived in Syracuse on the island of Sicily during the 4th century, when it was ruled by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. She was a virgin who devoted her life to the service of Christ rather than marry. This didn’t go over well with her promised bridegroom, who turned her over to the governor as a Christian; she was tortured and killed. In one version of the legend, she gouged out her own eyes and presented them to the suitor (hence the association with blindness); she is often depicted holding a pair of eyes on a tray.
St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated most commonly in Italy and in Scandinavia, with each emphasizing a different aspect of the story.
Under the Julian calendar, December 13 was the winter solstice, the longest night of the year (“the year’s midnight,” in the John Donne poem “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”). In Sweden and elsewhere in Scandinavia, where the sunlight is particularly scarce at this time of year, the St. Lucy’s Day customs have to do with light and dark. In fact, Lucia’s name means light. In Swedish tradition, young girls wear a crown of candles and wake their families bearing Lussekatter, special sweet yeasted buns flavored with saffron and studded with currants or raisins. The saffron gives them a golden color that represents the light.
In Sicily, the emphasis is on another aspect of the legend, that a famine ended on her feast day when ships loaded with grain entered the harbor. Here, it is traditional to eat whole grains instead of bread on December 13. This usually takes the form of cuccia, a dish of boiled wheat berries often mixed with ricotta and honey, or sometimes served as a savory soup with beans.
Hmm, that sounds suspiciously healthy. Maybe Lucia should also be the patron saint of low cholesterol?
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