Christmas Eve

Prepare a Nativity tray, a medieval English custom, described by Sarah Ban Breathnach in Simple Abundance. The folk custom states that anyone who on this night sets out a bone for a lost dog, hay for a hungry horse, a warm cloak for a wayfarer, a garland of bright berries for one who has worn chains, crumbs for the birds and sweetmeats for children, will be blessed for their generosity with gifts beyond measure. Sarah has been doing this for years and is always surprised to see what is gone the next day, one year, even the coat. This custom echoes other similar customs, like setting a table for the Fates (see December 1) or hay and carrots for St. Nicholas

On Christmas Eve, on the small island in western Ireland where Deborah Tall lived for a year in 1977,  people spruced up their houses for Christmas, even painting the walls at the last minute so that they were wet and couldn’t be touched when people went visiting at nightfall with gifts of whiskey and cake.

Dorothy Gladys Spicer in The Book of Festivals, writes that in Czechoslovakia, the day before Christmas is spent fasting. A child who does not touch food all day is promised that he or she will see the golden pig (reminiscent of the golden boar which Freya, the Scandgoldenpiginavian Queen of Heaven rides through the night skies, and of the boar’s head served at medieval English midwinter feasts). Once the first star is seen, the family gathers for a traditional meal of roe soup, fish, a braided bread (housky or vanocky) and a special cake rich with almonds and raisins.

Cubans call Christmas Eve, Noche Buena, “Good Night.” Families gather for a feast which features roast pig.

Italian-Americans enjoy the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas eve, a custom that began in southern Italy, which involves eating seven different kinds of fish.

French children go from house to house on Christmas Eve singing carols and giving good wishes. They are rewarded with food: bacon, eggs, flour, sweets, dried fruit, cakes, etc. In Burgundy, this round of visits is called the cornette, after the wafer made from cornmeal which is given as a reward. In Touraine, the treat is a guillauneu, a long cake split at both ends.

In many parts of Germany, the tree is not decorated until Christmas Eve. Dorothy Gladys Spicer describes how the parents do this in secret, behind closed doors, then the other family members are invited into the room to sing Christmas carols and open packages.

And in Iceland, people give each other books on Christmas Eve. I love learning this tradition.
References
Ban Breathnach, Sarah, Simple Abundance, Warner Books 1995
Bright, Marilyn, The Christmas Cookbook, Appletree Press, Harper Collins 1993
Lang, Jenifer Harvey, editor, Larousse Gastronomique, Crown 1984
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Womens Press 1937
Deborah Tall, Island of the White Cow, Atheneum 1986

The statue of the golden pig in Romny, Ulkraine was found at this link.

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St Lucy

bluelucyLucy 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.

Joanna Powell Colbert has written a blog post about St. Lucy and also a book, Crown of Candles, about how to host a Santa Lucia party, which she has done for many years.

 

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Who Is Santa Lucia?

By Joanna Powell Colbert

By Joanna Powell Colbert

One of the most charming customs of the Yuletide season is that of the Lucy Bride. She is the young woman or girl who wears a crown of candles on her head and walks through a dimly lit home, carrying a tray of pastries and coffee to feed her family. She is called St. Lucia and is most commonly known as the Christian saint who was said to light the way to salvation. But why did this Italian saint, with her origins in Sicily, capture the hearts of the people of the far north? For it is in the dark, northern lands of Scandinavia that she is the most beloved.

As Clement A. Miles wrote a hundred years ago, the imagery of the light shining forth out of darkness is a primary Yuletide theme, one that seems to strike deeply in the hearts of humankind. “Lux in tenebris is one of the strongest notes of Christmas: in the bleak midwinter a light shines through the darkness; when all is cold and gloom, the sky bursts into splendor, and in the dark cave is born the Light of the World.”

The historical Lucia was said to have been an early Christian martyr in Syracuse, Sicily, during the 4th century reign of Diocletian. She quickly became quite popular, with a widespread following by the 6th century. Two churches in Britain were dedicated to her before the 8th century, when Britain was still largely Pagan.

As with most saints, solid information about Lucia is lacking but many stories and legends are told about her. It is said that Lucia came from a wealthy family, and that she carried food to persecuted Christians hiding in dark underground tunnels. She wore a wreath of candles on her head to light the way as she carried her baskets of provisions. Another legend says that she plucked out her own eyes and sent them to a suitor, so that she would not have to marry him. Yet another tale claims that she was tortured for her faith and was blinded in that manner, though God restored her eyesight in the end.

Many images of St. Lucia show her holding a plate with eyeballs on it. She became the patron saint of the blind and those with eye trouble. 

The emphasis on eyes may have come from the identification of the Sicilian woman Lucia with the Italic goddess of light, Lucina or Lucetia. This goddess was often pictured holding a lamp and a plate of cakes, which were later mistaken for eyeballs. Lucetia became known as one of the aspects of the Roman Queen of Heaven, Juno. As Juno Lucina, goddess of childbirth, she was known as the opener of the eyes of newborn children.

She was also known to feed her people in times of famine. A story is told that St. Lucia arrived in the Syracuse harbor in 1582, bearing wheat on a ship for the townsfolk who had prayed to her for help while they were starving. A similar story takes place in medieval Sweden. St. Lucia, “with a face so radiant that there was a glow of light all about her head,”2 arrived in a ship on Lake Vannern bearing provisions during a winter famine. From both of these stories comes the custom of eating wheat porridge in honor of Lucia.

Various explanations are given of how the Italian Catholic saint traveled to Lutheran Scandinavia and became firmly entrenched in Nordic culture. Did the Vikings bring the story of St. Lucia back with them on their travels? Perhaps the story was carried by German traders, or priests and monks from the British Isles may have introduced the story.

However the story arrived in the northlands, it seems clear that the name “Lucia,” from lux (light), captured Nordic hearts as she merged with their ancestral traditions of Freya and Frigga. 

It was not unusual for the titles of ancient goddesses to be adopted as titles for both the Virgin Mary and for female saints. “Freya Vanadis,” meaning “shining bride of the gods,” reminds us of Lucy’s title “Lucia Bride.” Frigga was known as “Queen of the Aesir,” and St. Lucy was also called the “Lucia Queen.” 

Both were solar goddesses, associated with sun symbols such as sunwheels, cats, spinning, amber, and gold. Freya was called der vana solen, “the beautiful sun,” in a Swedish folksong.

The “eye” imagery of both Juno Lucina and the martyr Lucia is linked to Freya’s eyes which shed tears of amber in the ocean and gold on the earth. Unlike the virgin Lucia, however, who plucked out her eyes rather than submit to the caresses of a husband, Freya wept for her lost lover Odur.

She was the giver of riches. One of Freya’s names was “Gefjon,” meaning “Giver” or “Allgiver,” and she was known as the dispenser of wealth and plenty. It was said that her brother Frey gave the gift of fruitful fields while Freya gave the gift of crafted gold.

The golden saffron buns that the Lucia Bride serves are called lussekatter, literally “light cats.” One Christian tale said that the “rolls served by Lucia were devil’s cats which she subdued.” Freya’s solar chariot was pulled by her famous cats across the heavens. These cats were known to control the sunshine — it was said that if it rained at an inconvenient time, it was because the neighborhood cats were peevish or hungry.

Frigga was more closely tied to hearth and home than Freya. She is the goddess of spinning and her symbols are the spindle and distaff. The act of spinning was considered a magical act, sometimes symbolizing the spinning of destinies by the Fates, sometimes the spinning of light by the sun goddess. The winter constellation we know as Orion was called “Frigga’s Distaff,” Friggjar Rockr. “As the spinner, [Frigga] appears in Austria under the thinly Christianized guise of ‘St. Lucy’ or Spillelutsche, ‘Spindle-Lucia’, who, like Perchte, punishes those who have not spun during the year or have spun on her chosen feast-days.”

Lucy, like Frigga, is the bringer of light and life to the household in the depths of winter. 

Freya and Frigga are both identified at times with the Germanic goddesses Holda and Berchta, who are the light and dark sides of the same being. Both Holda and Berchta forbade spinning or other rotary tasks during the Yuletide season, the time when the “sun stands still” (the meaning of the word “solstice”). In Christian times, the ban on spinning was extended to include St. Lucia’s feast day.

Her feast day is December 13th, which was the day of the solstice before the change to the Gregorian calendar in the 1300’s. An old English rhyme reminds us that St. Lucia’s Day used to be the shortest day of the year: “Lucy-light, Lucy-light, shortest day and longest night.” Today, her feast day is seen as the beginning of the holiday season and is often called “Little Yule.”

The choosing of a girl to embody the character of the Lussibruden (Lucy Bride) or “Lucia Queen” in her community dates back to the 12th century. She wears a white dress and red sash (symbolic of light and fire) and a wreath of greenery (lingonberry or whortleberry twigs) on her head. Candles are attached (some say nine, or seven, or four — all sacred numbers) to the wreath and lit. She sets out while it is still dark “to carry food and drink to every house in the parish, and also to visit stables and cow-byres, so that animals as well as human beings may share in the promise of lengthening days and greater plenty that she brings.” She is preceded by torchbearers, and followed by a train of maidens, “star boys,” and wicked-looking trolls and demons. The goblins represent the bitter winter, soon to be vanquished by the radiant Lucia. “The Lucia Queen’s visits drive away misfortune and bring good luck and prosperity.”

Besides the visits of the village Lucy Bride to all the homes in the community, each household has its own bright visitor. The oldest (or youngest) daughter arises “at first cockcrow,” dons the gown, sash and crown, and in the darkness before the dawn, awakens the sleepers with songs, coffee and special buns called lussekatter. Some families then eat breakfast in a kitchen lit with candles.

Since 1927, when a Stockholm newspaper sponsored a contest to choose the city’s Lucia Bride, St. Lucia’s Day has become a source of national pride in Sweden. Lucia processions are held in schools, hospitals, offices, factories, and even airline flights. There are Lucia competitions where young women compete to represent their community. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature crowns Stockholm’s St Lucia.

Lynn Nelson, an American woman of Swedish descent, recalled the Lucia festivities of her own childhood: “I once knew a Swedish Evangelical Lutheran pastor . . . His predecessors, the Catholic priests, had taken five hundred years to clothe the [Lucia] tradition in its Christian trappings. St. Lucy was actually, he said, the goddess Freya. . . The pastor was quite old and had grown a bit testy as he spoke, and he finally rumbled that the Papists would never have been able to carry it off had they not struck on the device of placing at the center of their restructuring of the symbolism of this tradition a cup of hot, rich coffee and a slice of good coffee-cake.”

Whether or not her popularity is due to coffee and rolls, St. Lucia is greatly beloved as the Lightbringer during dark northern winters. Helen Farias neatly ties up all the elements of the Lucia story by saying that she “is the light-bringing midwife who is also bride, at the height of her power and who is most generous with her gifts, settling to earth at dawn in her cat-drawn chariot . . . just in time for breakfast.”

Joanna Powell Colbert is an artist, writer, and teacher of earth-centered spirituality and the Tarot. Joanna spent nine years creating the Gaian Tarot, which combines her love of symbolic, archetypal art with the mysteries of Mama Gaia, the natural world. Joanna blogs at GaianSoul.com.

References

Freya Aswynn, Northern Mysteries & Magick, St Paul MN: Llewellyn 1998.
Florence Ekstrand,Lucia, Child of Light, Welcome Press, 1989
Helen Farias, “Customs and Legends of Little Yule,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 5 No. 8, Clear Lake WA: 1990.
Helen Farias, “Divine Mothers of a Northern Winter,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 3 No. 7-8, Clear Lake WA:1988.
Helen Farias, “Festal Food: Lucia Cats,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 1 No. 8, Clear Lake WA: 1986
Helen Farias, “The Return of Lucia,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 3 No. 1, Clear Lake WA: 1987.
Helen Farias, “Magical Ladies of the Thirteen Nights,” The Beltane Papers, Clear Lake WA: Samhain 1992.
Waverly Fitzgerald, “St. Lucy’s Day,” School of the Seasons, <www.schooloftheseasons.com/lucia.html> (Accessed 1/21/00)
Waverly Fitzgerald & Helen Farias, Midwinter, Seattle: Priestess of Swords Press 1995.
Susan Granquist, “Lucy Fest,” Irminsul Aettir, <www.irminsul.org/arc/001sg.html>(Accessed 1/21/00)
Stephan Grundy, Alice Karlsdottir, Diana Paxson, “Chapter XVIII: The Frowe (Freyja),” Our Troth, <w3.one.net/~dls/kspirits/ot/otfrowe.htm> (Accessed 1/27/00)
Christina Hole, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, London: Paladin 1976
Ellen Evert Hopman, Tree Medicine Tree Magic, Phoenix Publishing 1992.
Alice Karlsdóttir, Stephan Grundy, Kveldulf Gundarsson, Melodi Lammond, Larsanthony K. Agnarsson, Karter Neal, Laurel Olson, Diana Paxson, Siegróa Lyfjasgy, Dianne Luark Ross, “Chapter XIII: Frija and Other Goddesses,” Our Troth, <w3.one.net/~dls/kspirits/ot/otfrija.htm> (Accessed 1/22/00)
John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas, Quest Books 1998
Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, Dover Publications 1976/1912
Lynn H. Nelson, “Holiday Business All Done,” <www.ukans.edu/~medieval/1999.kans/msg00009.html> 1/8/99 (Accessed 1/21/00)
Patricia Monaghan, O Mother Sun, Crossing Press 1994.
Thorskegga Thorn, “Spinning in Myths and Folktales,” <pluto.nidram.co.uk/%7Eskegga/spinmyth.htm> (Accessed 1/27/00)

This article was first published in PanGaia magazine, Winter 2000-2001. The footnoted version is  in the appendix of Joanna’s recently published e-book, A Crown of Candles, which is filled with ideas for celebrating the winter holidays with a party honoring Santa Lucia.

The photo of the Lucy Bride with her crown of candles was taken at one of Joanna’ s legendary Lucia Parties by Paul Bingham.

The lovely photo of the Lucy girls was taken by Claudia Grunder and I found it at Wikipedia.

It was first published December 8, 2015.

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