The Feast of Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia 2015

Today is the feast of Santa Lucia which is celebrated in Scandinavia and some parts of Italy. In Scandinavia the celebration is a mishmash of folklore, Pre-Christian and Catholic traditions and it is closely associated with Christmas. Accounts vary but Lucia of Syracuse seems to have been a Sicilian noblewoman who fell victim to the Diocletianic Persecution and were later made virgin martyr. Lucia refused to renounce her Christian beliefs and forsake her vow of chastity and was consequently stabbed in the throat after having survived being burnt alive. In some narratives her eyes are gouged out, either because she wants to get rid of a suitor who admires them, or as a form of torture before being executed.

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Lorenzo Lotto, Saint Lucy Before the Judge (1532), detail

In Scandinavia Lucia became associated with Lucifer and incorporated in folklore as Lussi, a demonic, witch-like figure who rode across the skies and roamed in the night, followed by supernatural creatures. She was thought to be particularly active on the night between the 12th and 13th of December, which was known as Lussinatta and was once the longest night of the year. During this night Lussi would punish any households which had not yet finished their preparations for Christmas. Lussi was also associated with Åsgårdsreia, a wild hunt consisting of the souls of the dead which rode across the skies as an omen or even to snatch people’s souls. Christmas celebrations in Scandinavia were therefore traditionally focused on symbols and decorations intended to keep evil sprits away and people would typically paint a cross over their door and keep objects with qualities believed to ward off supernatural creatures on their windowsill.

Aasgaardreien Peter Nicolai Arbo
Peter Nicolai Arbo, Åsgårdsreien (1872)
Julereia1922
Nils Berglien, Julereia (1922)

Nowadays Lucia is mostly associated with the martyr rather than the demonic Lussi and she is depicted as a saint of light crowned with a wreath of candles, to brighten the dark winter. The current Norwegian celebration is very similar to the Swedish tradition, and dates from the 1890s, with children dressed in white, walking in a torchlight procession, singing a song set to a Neapolitan melody while handing out lussekatter (saffron buns) shaped like ancient symbols of the sun.

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A rather annoyed Saint Lucy, painted by Fritz von Dardel in 1848.
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Saint Lucy on the covers of two magazines from 1922 & 1931.

Santa Lucia 2015

Happy feast of Santa Lucia! May you eat all the saffron buns and not have your eyes gouged out.

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