December 13th is the feast day of Santa Lucia, a fourth century maiden who endured torture and execution rather than an undesirable marriage. She is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse in Sicily as well as the blind and all eye trouble.
Lucia was born to a wealthy family in Syracuse during the Diocletian Persecution, which was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. It is estimated that about 3000 Christians were executed under Diocletian’s reign. Legend has it that young Lucia was betrothed to a pagan, whom she refused to marry out of religious conviction. To drive home her devotion to Christ (or make herself less of an attractive marriage prospect), she dispersed her dowry to the poor. Her suitor was so angered by this rejection and loss of fortune that he reported her as a Christian to the local authorities.
There are a few different accounts of what happened here. One story is that this suitor had expressed admiration for her beautiful eyes, so she plucked them out and gave them to him, with a request to leave the rest of her for God. My mother once told a young man she didn’t want to date any more that she was joining the convent. Lucia pretty much used the same tactic, but way more bad-ass. That should get the message across, “I actually would rather gouge out my own eyes than be with you.” God was so pleased with this break-up method that he healed her eyes and they were more beautiful than before. This is why Santa Lucia is often pictured holding a tray of eyeballs.
Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is even more gruesome and less awesome. After being denounced by her one time admirer, she was condemned to work in a brothel. (The punishment for wanting to keep your chastity is work detail as a prostitute, what a sophisticated sense of irony those Romans had!) When the prison guards came to take her to her new job she was so filled with the Holy Spirit that they could not move her. After a mighty struggle that allegedly involved 100 men and 50 oxen, the guards decided to burn her where she stood. Miraculously the fire did not harm her. (Or maybe the guards were afraid of being asphyxiated or burning the place down by starting a fire indoors.) So finally they gouged her eyes out with a fork and stabbed her with a sword. This finally killed her.
How festive! Is there a better back story for a pre-Christmas, breakfast party? Santa Lucia Day is popularly celebrated in Sweden where they do not make much use of the actual story of her life and martyrdom. Before the calendar was changed from the Julian to the Gregorian, December 13th was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. And Sweden has some of the shortest short days. The name Lucia means “Light” and on this day the oldest daughter in the family rises early, dons a white robe with a red sash, to symbolize both Lucia’s purity, and her martydom, and wears an evergreen crown with four lighted candles, as it is believed that Lucia wore candles on her head when she went into the catacombs where persecuted Christians hid to bring them food. This allowed her to light her way in the dark tunnels, while keeping her hands free to minister to the needy. The daughter wakes her family at dawn with a breakfast of coffee, gingerbread and saffron St. Lucia Buns. This greeting of the day symbolizes Lucia bringing back the light, as the days will begin to get longer again. The oldest girl can be accompanied in a procession by her younger sisters, also dressed in white and carrying candles and her brothers, the “Star Boys”, in white cone shaped hats adorned with stars representing the night Lucia is banishing or the Star of Bethlehem. If you have young children you may want to consider making a paper candle crown to avoid a tragic fire. Here is a link to a great example of how to make your own hazard free crown and star boy hat.
This is the official start of the Christmas Season in Sweden and is celebrated in schools, hospitals, town centers and businesses. The Lucia-Bride, as the white robbed girl is called, is a goodwill ambassador who visits the poor, the sick and the blind delivering food, money and spreading holiday cheer in the spirit of her namesake.