Saint Lucy: Bringer of Light
By Cheryl Arnold
December 13 is the feast day of Saint Lucy, who is known as Santa Lucia in Scandinavia and Italy. Lucia was born in 283 A.D. in Syracuse on the island of Sicily, which was part of the Roman Empire during the time of the Diocletianic persecutions. Her father was a rich nobleman married to a Greek woman named Eutychia. He died when Lucia was five years old, leaving Eutychia to care for Lucia and arrange her marriage. Suffering from an acute bleeding disorder and fearful for Lucia’s future, Eutychia arranged for her marriage to the son of a wealthy pagan family. Lucia, though, was a devout Christian and had secretly consecrated her virginity to God, planning to live a life of celibacy while giving away her riches to the poor. When her mother had recovered, Lucia convinced her mother to allow her to begin giving away her wealth, telling her, “Whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Savior, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.” News of this reached her fiancé, who was enraged and betrayed her faith to Paschasius, the governor of Syracuse. Paschasius ordered her to burn a sacrifice to an icon of the emperor, who was considered to be a god, and when she refused, she was tortured and martyred for her faith at age 20.
Many legends have grown up around her life and death. Facts about her are scarce, so some of these may be true while others are fabrications. In one story, Lucia, whose name means light, was believed to have secretly brought food to Christians who were hiding in the catacombs during the Diocletianic persecutions. To avoid being caught, she went out at night wearing a wreath of candles on her head to light her way and to enable her to carry more provisions.
So how did a young woman from Sicily come to be known and celebrated in Scandinavia? Stories of Lucia may have been brought to Scandinavia by traders and even Vikings after their travels to Italy. With the dark and cold winters in Scandinavia, she was seen as a bringer of light into the darkness. A medieval legend tells of one particularly dark, cold winter when provisions were scarce. A trading ship, bearing Lucy’s image and carrying sacks of wheat, arrived on the shores of Lake Vänern in Sweden and saved the people from starvation. Lucy’s feast day came to symbolize light, abundance, generosity, and hope, and it was celebrated on the day of the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—under the old Julian calendar.
Saint Lucy is celebrated in many countries today. She is usually depicted as wearing a white robe (symbolic of her baptism and purity) and red sash (symbolic of her martyrdom) and wearing a wreath of candles on her head. In a family celebration, one of the daughters may dress up as Lucia and bring coffee and saffron buns (lussekatts) to each family member in darkness of the early morning. At my small Christian college, which was founded by the Swedish Evangelical Free Church and Norwegian-Danish Free Church, a freshman girl with a servant’s heart was chosen by the students to be Santa Lucia, and at the Scandinavian Christmas banquet she came to our tables to serve us cookies from her basket. Both the buns and cookies are symbolic of bread and remind us of Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.
The book Common Worship includes a collect for Saint Lucy, which is a fitting reflection on what she means for us today:
God our redeemer, who gave light to the world that was in darkness by the healing power of the Savior’s cross: shed that light on us, we pray, that with your martyr Lucy we may, by the purity of our lives, reflect the light of Christ and, by the merits of his passion, come to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.