Today is the feast of Lucia of Syracuse (283–304), also known as Saint Lucy, or Saint Lucia (Italian: Santa Lucia), a young Christian martyr who died during the Diocletianic Persecution. She is venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox Churches. She is one of eight women, who along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.
All that is really known for certain of Lucy is that she was a martyr in Syracuse during the Diocletianic Persecution of 304 AD. Her veneration spread to Rome, and by the 6th century to the whole Church. The oldest archaeological evidence comes from Greek inscriptions in the catacombs of St. John in Syracuse.
The oldest record of her story comes from the fifth-century. Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea was the most widely read version of the Lucy legend in the Middle Ages. In medieval accounts, Saint Lucy’s eyes are gouged out prior to her execution, but this element is not part of the earliest narratives.
All the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century. According to the traditional story, Lucy was born of rich and noble parents about the year 283. Her father was of Roman origin, but died when she was five years old, leaving Lucy and her mother without a protective guardian. Her mother’s name Eutychia, seems to indicate that she came of Greek stock. Like many of the early martyrs, Lucy had consecrated her virginity to God, and she hoped to distribute her dowry to the poor. However, Eutychia, not knowing of Lucy’s promise and, suffering from a bleeding disorder, feared for Lucy’s future. She arranged Lucy’s marriage to a young man of a wealthy pagan family.
Saint Agatha had been martyred 52 years earlier during the Decian persecution. Her shrine at Catania, less than fifty miles from Syracuse attracted a number of pilgrims, and many miracles were reported to have happened through her intercession. Eutychia was persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania, in hopes of a cure. While there, St. Agatha came to Lucy in a dream and told her that because of her faith her mother would be cured and that Lucy would be the glory of Syracuse, as she was of Catania. With her mother cured, Lucy took the opportunity to persuade her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor.
Euthychia suggested that the sums would make a good bequest, but Lucy countered, “…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 that the patrimony and jewels were being distributed came to Lucy’s betrothed, who denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse. Paschasius ordered her to burn a sacrifice to the emperor’s image. When she refused Paschasius sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. The Christian tradition states that when the guards came to take her away, they could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, but would not burn. Finally, she met her death by the sword.
By the 6th century, her story was sufficiently widespread that she appears in the Sacramentary of Pope Gregory I. She is also commemorated in the ancient Roman Martyrology. St. Aldhelm (d. 709) and later the Venerable Bede (d. 735) attest that her popularity had already spread to England, where her festival was kept until the Protestant Reformation, as a holy day of the second rank, in which no work except tillage or necessary farm work was allowed.
Lucy’s Latin name Lucia shares a root (luc-) with the Latin word for light, lux. This has played a large part in Saint Lucy being named as the patron saint of the blind and those with eye-trouble. She is also the patroness of Syracuse in Sicily. At the Piazza Duomo in Syracuse, the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia houses the painting “Burial of St. Lucy (Caravaggio)”. Saint Lucy is also the patron saint of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/saint-lucia-independence-day/ ), and of the US state of Nebraska.
The feast of St Lucy falls in Advent and once coincided with the winter solstice, before the Gregorian calendar reform. So her feast day is conventionally a festival of light. This is particularly seen in Scandinavian countries, with their long dark winters. There, a young girl dressed in a white dress and a red sash (as the symbol of martyrdom) carries palms and wears a crown or wreath of candles on her head. In both Norway and Sweden, girls dressed as Lucy carry rolls and cookies in procession as songs are sung.
It is also a tradition in Sweden for the eldest daughter in the family to rise early and, wearing her Lucy garb of white robe, red sash, and a wire crown covered with whortleberry-twigs with nine lighted candles fastened in it, to wake the family, singing Sankta Lucia, serving them coffee and saffron buns (St. Lucia buns).
Devotion to St. Lucy is practiced in the Italian regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, in the North of the country, and Sicily and Calabria, in the South, as well as in Croatian coastal region of Dalmatia. It is celebrated with large traditional feasts of home made pasta and various other Italian dishes, with a special dessert of wheat in hot chocolate milk (cuccia). The large grains of soft wheat are representative of her eyes and this dish is supposed to be made only once a year. In some parts of Sicily cuccia has evolved into a less soft pudding my adding ricotta.
In some parts of Italy it is still customary for Santa Lucia to bring gifts to good children and coal to bad ones on the night between December 12 and 13. According to tradition, she arrives in the company of a donkey and her escort, Castaldo. Children are asked to leave some coffee for Lucia, a carrot for the donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo. They must not watch Santa Lucia delivering these gifts, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them. Like other gift giving customs associated with the Christmas season (e.g. St Nicholas, Epiphany etc.), this one appears to be dying in favor of gifts on Christmas Day itself.
It is Hungarian custom to plant wheat in a small pot on St. Lucy’s feast. By Christmas green sprouts appear, signs of life coming from death. The wheat is then carried to the manger scene.
Here’s an excellent website containing all manner of information about Saint Lucy’s Day in Sweden including recipes with plenty of images of the steps. I highly recommend saffron buns.