Santa Lucia or St. Lucy is an Italian saint particularly beloved by Scandinavians. Lucy lived in Sicily toward the end of the third century. Very little is known of her other than that she was martyred during the Christian persecutions of Diocletian. Stories are told of her as a gentle young Christian woman who cared for the poor.
A marriage had been arranged for her but she wished to dedicate her life to Christ and she sold her dowry to help the poor. This so enraged her fiancé that he turned her into the authorities as a Christian who refused to offer sacrifices to the gods of Rome. She was condemned to work in a brothel; when she refused to cooperate she was tortured by fire and eventually killed by sword on Dec. 13, 304. Some stories tell of her eyes being put out and often she is portrayed in art carrying her eyes.
Women in this period of time had few options other than to marry, usually men they did not know or choose. Wealthy women were pawns in family ambitions and slave women had no autonomy over their own bodies. Often we relate the early church emphasis on chastity and celibacy with a negative view of sexuality. For women however, this emphasis gave them an alternative to marriage. Stories of miraculous preservation of women from assault reflect, not a disdain for the body but a respect and honor that gave women a power over their own bodies they had not known.
Lucia means “light” and Santa Lucia became associated with light. In northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, her day fell on the shortest day of the year and was celebrated as they turned from the long winter nights and began to look forward to longer days. During the Roman persecutions, Lucia is said to have carried food to the poor in dark tunnels, wearing a wreath of candles on her head.
The story is told that long ago there was a terrible famine in the province of Varmland, Sweden. Just when it looked like the town would starve to death, a ship appeared with food, and a vision of Santa Lucia in white with a wreath of light around her head. Lucia has been loved in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries since then.
In Scandinavian families on Dec. 13, the eldest (or youngest) daughter awakens early and prepares a special breakfast. She dons a white dress with a red sash, a wreath of candles and leading the other children in the family, brings the food while singing a song of light and joy to the other adults in the family. Traditionally the wheat harvest is finished by this day so that the baking for Christmas may begin.
The tradition of planting wheat on St. Lucy’s Day comes from Hungary, Croatia and other European nations. Plant wheat grains in a round dish or plate of soil, then water the seeds. Place the container in a warm spot. If the planting medium is kept moist (not sopping wet), the seeds will germinate and the shoots will be several inches high by Christmas. Then the new green shoots, reminding us of the new life born in Bethlehem, may be tied with a ribbon, if desired, and a candle may be placed near them as a symbol of the Light of Christ.
These traditions help us remember during a season that can become very materialistic that the saint behind them all, Lucy, like St. Nicholas, was a person who was kind and gentle, and whose love for Christ led them to care for the poor.
Joelle Colville-Hanson is an ELCA interim pastor in Iowa. She is also a figure skater, single mom and gardener.