Lucy is a Sicilian saint, the patroness of Syracuse where she was martyred during the reign of Diocletian. One story says that when a suitor admired her beautiful eyes she cut them out and sent them to him, asking to be left in peace thereafter (like most early Christian virgin martyrs, she refused marriage). Now she is the patron of eye diseases and the blind and is often depicted carrying her eyeballs on a plate.
Lucy means “light.” Lucina is the Sabine goddess of Light, who was often pictured holding a plate of cakes (later mistaken for eyeballs) and a lamp. She was later absorbed into an aspect of Juno, Juno Lucina, who is goddess of childbirth. Lucina is usually shown carrying a tray and a lamp; her title is “opener of the eyes,” referring to her role as midwife. Since Lucy’s day falls right before (or, before the calendar change, upon) the winter solstice, she can be viewed as the midwife of the miraculous sun-child who is born at Yule.
In Italy, the eve of her feast day is celebrated with torchlight processions and bonfires, clear indications of her role as light bringer, according to Carol Field in her marvelous book, Celebrating Italy, on Italian holiday food customs. Apparently untroubled by the gruesome imagery, Italians eat St. Lucy’s eyes: cakes or biscotti shaped like eyeballs.
In honor of a miracle performed by St Lucy during a famine in 1582 (she made a flotilla of grain-bearing ships appear in the harbor–the people were so hungry they boiled and ate the grain without grinding it into flour), Sicilians don’t eat anything made with wheat flour on her day, which means giving up both pasta and bread. Instead they eat potatoes or rice, cooked either in a risotto or as arancine, golden croquettes shaped and fried to the color of oranges and filled with chopped meat and chicken giblets stewed with peas and tomato sauce. Another popular dish in Palermo is panelli, seasoned chick-pea flour, boiled to a paste, cooled, sliced and fried, usually eaten on a roll except on this day. The traditional dessert in Palermo is cuccia, a sweet pudding made of whole-wheat berries that have been soaked and boiled, then mixed with sweet ricotta and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar and chocolate shavings.
The celebration of St Lucy spread over all of Europe. But the place where she is most beloved is Scandinavia, where light is especially welcome in the long hours of winter darkness. There her customs mingle with the traditional deities of the land and ceremonies celebrating the light in the darkness. Susan Granquist notes the similarity between the Italian story of St Lucy sending a ship of wheat to Syracuse, and the Scandinavian story in which a magical ship arrives in the middle of a famine, sailing across Lake Vannern, with a glowing woman dressed all in white at the helm. It is St Lucy, bringing good the starving people. (This is one of the tales Helen Farias retells most beautifully restoring the identity of the magical woman to Freya in her tale for the Advent Sunwheel, “The Ice Ship.”)
In Sweden, the eldest (or youngest) daughter rises before dawn on St. Lucy’s Day and fixes a breakfast of special pastries and coffee for her family. She appears in their bedrooms, dressed in a white dress belted with a red sash, and wearing a wreath of greens and four lighted candles. Sometimes the wreath is made of green rue and decorated with red ribbons. She serves traditional pastries called lussekatter (or Lucy cats), x-shaped pastries, sometimes flavored with saffron. These yellow-colored rolls have four arms that curl inward, forming a swastika, a symbol of the sun. Other traditional foods served in her honor include saffron buns, ginger biscuits and glogg, a hot spiced wine with aquavit.
Later in the day, St Lucy makes a public appearance. Christina Hole in Dictionay of British Folk Customs describes a typical Swedish procession: St Lucy wearing her crown (of lingonberries or whortleberry twigs and surmounted with seven or nine candles) processes around the village followed by her attendants (young girls clad in white with glitter in their hair), star-boys (wearing white shirts and tall cone-shaped hats decorated with stars) and other children dressed as trolls and demons and old men. Sometimes St. Stephen (represented by a man on horseback) leads the way. In Switzerland, St Lucy strolls around the village with Father Christmas, giving gifts to the girls while he gives gifts to the boys.
St Lucy’s Day was a traditional day for butchering the Christmas pig in Norway. The butcher (formerly a godhi or head chieftain) was rewarded with the lussesup (meaning cup of light), which usually contained brandy. Granquist equates the lussesup and the bragarfull, the holy cup on which oaths were sworn that was associated with the sonargolt or holy boar of Yule.
In Hungary, according to Dorothy Gladys Spicer in the Book of Festivals, bands of Kotylok (cacklers) or fortune-telling lads go from house to house singing ancient fertility chants. The Kotylok wish for hens and geese, for many eggs and bountiful blessings. If the mistress of the house welcomes the singers and gives them the traditional present of dried pears, blessings will follow. If not, the chicken population may be reduced to one and that one blind (St Lucy’s connection with eyesight showing up again in a rather peculiar application).
Just as the Italian Santa Lucia (Loo-CEE-a) partakes of the qualities of Juno Lucina, the midwife aspect of Juno the Queen of Heaven, the Scandinavian St Lucia (pronounced LOO-sha) partakes of the qualities of Freya, Queen of Heaven, the Shining Bride. Holiday expert, Helen Farias, in an article in The Beltane Papers, speculated that the constellation we now know as Orion was once viewed by the Celts as the great goddess Bride (the girl representing Lucy is called the Lussibruden (Lucy Bride)) and by the Northerners as the Goddess Freya. (Orion’s belt was sometimes called “Freya’s Distaff.”) Many centuries ago, this constellation processed across the sky during the winter nights, setting in the west at dawn about the time the daughter dresses herself as Lucy. (Now Orion reappears in the North American sky in December.) Freya traveled across the sky in a chariot drawn by cats. Perhaps Lucy’s celebration replaced earlier rites devoted to Freya, thus explaining the Lucy cats and the star-boys.
Because both names are based on the same root word for light, in Old Norse as well as Latin, Lucia was sometimes linked with Lucifer. In Norway, Lucy is considered a loose woman, even a goblin, and is said to lead the Wild Hunt. Another tale says she was the first wife of Adam, and the mother of the vittra people who live underground. Some say the lussikatter (Lucy cats) that are served on her day represent the devil’s cats which the saint subdued so that they gathered around her feet.