saints export: Lucia. swedish christmas #1

As a person and as a historian I noticed close relations between Sweden and Italy. There are significantly more Italian students in Sweden that you would expect, many Swedish historians write about Italian history and vice versa. Lucia is an Italian patron of Syracuse, memory of whom is celebrated in Sweden until today. December 13th is a special day across the nation. Beside dresses, songs and processions Swedes would not be Swedes if they had a tradition without a traditional baking. All that because of saint depicted with her eyes on a tray.

Fritz von Dardel, Saint Lucia's Day, Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Fritz von Dardel, Saint Lucia's Day, Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Before we get to the eyes
If there is any reason that I know of why Scandinavian people want to move to another country south from them, it would be the darkness. They have to struggle with longer nights for longer period during a year than the rest of Europe. They try to fight it with enormous amount of coffee and Scandinavian design, so they stay awake in their beautifully decorated homes. This mostly atheistic nation would even use an Italian saint to bring more light around winter season. And by bringing the light, I don't speak figuratively. 

December the 13th is the traditional date for celebration of Saint Lucia's Day. It is the beginning of Christmas season in Sweden. Of course, when tradition and modern style of living meet, it is hard to follow the exact date everywhere, so processions for Saint Lucia can take place at the very beginning of December. What matters is to follow the form and style of celebration. The tradition came to Sweden along with German missionaries in the medieval times. It was continued in the times of reformation. Modern version is 200 years old (or at least we have sources to state that, #historianalert). The first public procession took place in Stockholm in 1927. Capital's newspaper elected an official Lucia for the city that year. The initiative was followed around the country and it is applied until today. The national Lucia is elected on national television from regional winners. Swedes even made into Guinness World Records thanks to Lucia's procession - once in Stockholm 1200 people participated. In 2008 for the first time males were elected as Lucia in several schools, which caused a lot of controversy. Okay, but what is it with those eyes?

Domenico Beccafumi, Santa Lucia, 1521, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

Domenico Beccafumi, Santa Lucia, 1521, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

Lucia as a woman

Lucia was born in Syracuse, Italy, around 282 AD in rich, noble family. She was famous for her big, beautiful eyes. Her father died when Lucia was young and her mother Eutychia arranged a marriage in order to secure her future. Lucia's betrothed was a high-born young man from a pagan family. When Eutychia became severely sick, they both set on pilgrimage to Saint Agnes grave in Catania, Sicily. During this journey, Lucia had a dream. Woman, surrounded by angels, told a girl, that her mother is healed thanks to Lucia's faith. After this event she made vows. She renounced all cakes and ale and started to give away her estate to the poor. Lucia was bringing the food to the Christians hiding in the catacombs. She needed source of light, so in order to have free hands, she used a wreath with candles on her head. Distribution of the patrimony and jewels made Lucia's betrothed furious and he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse. Paschasius ordered her to burn a sacrifice to the emperor (or gods) image. Lucia refused, so she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel. When the guards came to take Lucia away, no one could move her, even with a help of oxen team. She was doused it, attempts to set her on fire petered out. One of the toturer stuck sword in her neck. Lucia lived for the next couple of hours, she managed to receive the body and the blood of Christ. She died in 303, aged 23.

In the 15th century variation of the legend came up, regarding her eyes. When Paschasius sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel, Lucia gouged her eyes out to make her look uglier. Another account says that Paschasius commanded to mar Lucia this way. When her body was prepared for burial it was discovered that her eyes were restored, miraculously by God. It is said that gouging the eyes out happened on a shortest, darkest day of the year, Winter Solstice. Nowadays, according to the Georgian calendar, it falls on December 21st or 22nd, but when this tradition came to Sweden, they used Julian calendar, which moves the date for 10 days. Saint Lucia's Day was celebrated on December 13th and it stayed that way.

There are few attributes that she is depicted with: sword, dagger, neck wound, cup or plate with her eyes on, palm branch (symbol of victory over evil and martyrdom ), candles (in Gothic art she is often represented holding a dish with two eyes on it).

There are few reasons why she is associated with light: gauging her eyes out and having them restored by God, doing it on the shortest day of the year, using candle-lit wreath while going to catacombs, her name can mean 1) the one that is bringing the light, 2) lux, light, 3) born at the sunrise. One variation, one explanation. For sure Lucia has to do something with light.

She is a patron of blind and those having eye-trouble. Dante, who was also having eye problems, put her in his Divine Comedy. Lucia became patron of writers, tailors, farmers, needlewomen and weavers.

Francesco del Cossa, Santa Lucia, 1472-1743, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Francesco del Cossa, Santa Lucia, 1472-1743, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Road to Scandinavia Celebrating Lucia's death became universal in the Church in the 6th century. Churches in Italy and England were devoted to Lucia. As I mentioned above, the tradition came to Sweden with German missionaries. On Saint Lucia's Day medieval Swedes could eat seven breakfasts in a row and drink a lot of alcohol with it. It was a way (very Nordic one, wouldn't you say?) to prepare the bodies for the pre-Christmas fasting. The fast started with sunrise after Saint Lucia's Day.

Back to the Germans. Their 18th century Jesus in Swedish mansions became sort of landlady, a host of plenteous feasts, who impersonated Lucia. A century later, instead of vodka and pork coffee and lussekatter came onboard. The tradition of celebrating Saint Lucia's Day in Sweden widespread at the end of 19th century. Today it is still mostly associated with this country, but it is present in Norway, Denmark and Swedish-speaking parts of Finland as well.

The earliest records of Saint Lucia's Day in Finland are from 1898. The first large celebrations came in 1930. As Swedes, Finns elect their Lucia since 1949 and she is crowned in the Helsinki Cathedral.

In Denmark, Luciadag was first celebrated on December 13th 1944. The tradition was imported from Sweden by Franz Wend, secretary of Föreningen Norden, as an attempt "to bring light in a time of darkness”. It was meant to be a sign of passive protest against Nazi occupation and remained a tradition ever since. The night before Saint Lucia's Day candles are lit and all electrical lights turned off.

 

Lorenzo Lotto, Santa Lucia davanti al giudice, 1523, Pinacoteca civica e galleria di arte contemporanea, Jesi

Lorenzo Lotto, Santa Lucia davanti al giudice, 1523, Pinacoteca civica e galleria di arte contemporanea, Jesi

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