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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Santa Lucia and the Festival of Lights

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Today, December 13th is the feast of St. Lucia (Lucy). In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries the feast of St. Lucia marks the beginning of Christmas celebrations.

Like St. Stephen, whose feast day is celebrated on December 26 and has become associated with the after Christmas celebration of Boxing Day on the same date, St. Lucia was an early martyr in the Christian Church. St. Lucia was born in the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in 283 A.D. Her family was wealthy with her father being Roman and her mother Greek. St. Lucia was raised a Christian and, despite her great beauty and horde of admirers, chose to dedicate her life to the Church and remain a virgin. Her father, who had a strong Christian faith died when she was young and, as St. Lucia entered adulthood, her mother, who lacked her husband's Christian faith, tried to force St. Lucia into a marriage with a wealthy non-believer. Lucia resisted all attempts to marry her off.

At the same time the Roman authorities, under the rule of the Emperor Diocletian, began stepping up their persecutions of Christians. Despite the danger, Lucia began secretly helping Christians hiding in dark underground tunnels from the Romans by bringing them food. According to legend, Lucia would wear a candle on her head to light her way and free her hands to carry bread to those in the tunnels. This continued for about three years until Lucia herself was exposed as a Christian and arrested. Some stories say that a suitor she had rejected got his revenge by turning her in to the authorities. On December 13th in 303 A.D. Lucia, after refusing to renounce her faith, died for that faith at the hands of her Roman executioners. Some stories say she was beheaded while others claim she suffered a more gruesome death. In either case, she joined the ranks of the early Christian martyrs and was soon proclaimed a saint.

Lucia means "light" and, a few centuries after her death, Vikings from the north managed to extend the radius of their trade and warfare to Sicily where they encountered the story of St. Lucia. The tradition of celebrating the feast of St. Lucia was carried back to Scandinavia by missionaries who followed the Vikings back home and began converting the Viking population to Christianity.

Under the old Julian calendar December 13th was the date of the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year. St. Lucia, the saint associated with light, became a logical replacement for the old Norse goddesses who were revered for bringing the world back to light following the solstice.

A millennia ago, the Norse King Canute of England decreed that the celebration of the Christmas season would begin with the Feast of St. Lucia. Today, on December 13th, the Festival of Lights is celebrated in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries with young girls dressing in a white dress, a crown of battery operated artificial candles (which have replaced the more dangerous candles of old) and carrying a plate of sweet breads. In times past the young women would go door to door in the villages offering bread to the neighbors. Today families celebrate with the young girls dressing up as described above and young boys in a white outfit and carrying a candle. There is singing of St. Lucia's song and feasting on traditional sweet breads, cakes and cookies. In the larger cities in Sweden there are contests with young women competing for the title of the Santa Lucia for the coming year.

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