St. Lucy’s Day

‘Tis the season of obscure saints and feasts. The Feast of St. Lucy, also known as St. Lucia Day, is celebrated on or around December 13. Unlike the less-well-known feast days that pepper the December calendar, St. Lucia Day has made its way to the church basements and fellowship halls of Lutheran and Covenant churches all over the United States.

A Marriage of Mythology

The specifics of St. Lucy’s story are a bit muddled, but most sources say St. Lucy was a young Italian woman martyred around AD 310. Lucy was engaged to a man who turned her over to the Roman authorities when she refused to compromise her faith or her virginity before their wedding.

The Romans threatened to force her into prostitution unless she renounced her faith. She refused. But when the authorities tried to physically move her, they couldn’t. Plan B was to stack wood at her feet and burn her, but the flames had no effect. Finally, a soldier ran a spear through Lucy’s throat to make her stop her proclamations of faith, but this, too, failed to kill her. At last, Lucy was given last rites, and only then did she die.

In another, less-violent version of the Lucy story, she earned her place in the litany of saints by bringing food and aid to Christians hiding in the catacombs during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. To light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible, Lucy fashioned a candle-lit wreath for her head.

Eventually, Lucy’s story made its way from Italy to Scandinavia, most likely with missionaries who came to evangelize the Vikings. The story of a young girl bringing light in the midst of darkness no doubt held great meaning for people who, in the midst of a North Sea December, were longing for the relief of warmth and light.

Candle Hats and Tea

Today, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Italy, and a handful of Slavic countries still celebrate St. Lucia’s Day. With the exception of Denmark, most Scandinavian countries treat the holiday as a secular event, with local city governments and schools electing official “Lucias” who visit shopping malls, walk in parades, and hand out treats to children and senior citizens. In Italy, Lucy is said ride on a donkey and bring gifts to good children during the night.

Here in the United States, the main event is the Lucia procession, usually held at a church on the Saturday or Sunday closest to December 13th. Originally an in-home family ceremony, the processional now features an older girl—the chosen Lucia—dressed in her white gown, red sash, and crown of candles--leading a processional of girls of all ages who then serve coffee and St. Lucia buns (a sweet roll made with saffron) to the other women of the church. As the girls process, they sing a Lucia song that describes the light overcoming the darkness.

And the girl who gets to wear the gown and lead the processional? She is the church’s version of the Prom Queen. Being chosen as St. Lucia is a cherished honor among girls at these churches, one they long for from their first processional when they hold a single candle.

Whether the story is one of true martyrdom or simple saintliness, the Feast of St. Lucy has found its way into Scandinavian-American culture as a mainstay of the Christmas season.

By Carla Barnhill

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #103 in 2012]

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