Sunday, December 14, 2014

St. Lucy Day

How do you celebrate St. Lucy's Day? Do you call it Sankta Lucia or Lussidag? Do you think of her with a crown of candles and tray of saffron buns or bearing a martyr's palm and plate of eyes?

Lucy was a real person, a Christian in the classical era during the times of persecution, and such an ancient saint naturally has had meaning and customs added to her feast day over time.

There are dozens of articles you can read on the internet about her story and later legends, about how her feast day (December 13) became associated with the winter solstice in the far north, and her light-bearing symbolizes the promise of the return of summer in the middle of deep winter.

I want to offer just what I am thinking about this year, as a person who is neither of Scandinavian nor Italian descent (the regions most associated with Lucy's veneration), but who welcomes Lucy into my winter days of remembrance for many reasons.

Memorial of Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

A hero, virgin, martyr, saint
There is no disconnect between Lucy as martyr for Christ and a symbol of the return of the sun in winter. They are the same thing, understood on the spiritual and natural levels. 

A bringer of light in winter
[These are the day's readings in the Catholic lectionary (if you're protestant, you might hear slightly different readings, since Sirach is not used in later Bibles). I'm using them here as a framework to meditate on, not as any kind of biblical proof for Lucy in the Bible or anything. Of course not, she is just one of many early Christian saints, who become special to certain peoples over time. I think God planned it that way. He knows the best ways to speak to every kind of person, in every time, in every language. Lucia, of course, means "light" and her feast day (the day she was martyred, of her death) is marked on the old calendar's winter solstice, before Gregorian calendar reform.]

Reading 1: Sirach 48:1-4, 9-11

In those days,
like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah
whose words were as a flaming furnace.
Their staff of bread he shattered,
in his zeal he reduced them to straits;
By the Lord’s word he shut up the heavens
and three times brought down fire.
How awesome are you, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
Whose glory is equal to yours?
You were taken aloft in a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with fiery horses.
You were destined, it is written, in time to come
to put an end to wrath before the day of the LORD,
To turn back the hearts of fathers toward their sons,
and to re-establish the tribes of Jacob.
Blessed is he who shall have seen you 
and who falls asleep in your friendship.

Lucy, like Elijah, became a sign to a people. It was a thousand years ago when the Norse peoples were first evangelized (around 1100 AD), and probably a few hundred years later until the story of Lucy made its way from Sicily to Scandinavia. Over time, the connection was made between the celebration of winter solstice and the saint's story. Today, when the region, and much of the world. has forgotten most of its Christian era, the promise God made to love mankind and establish his reign over all the world is still current, still true, still full of hope. Scripture is wonderful that way. It is timeless, applying to the past, the present when it was written, today, and for the future.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 80:2ac and 3b, 15-16, 18-19

R. (4) Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.
O shepherd of Israel, hearken,
From your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth.
Rouse your power.

R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

Once again, O LORD of hosts,
look down from heaven, and see;
Take care of this vine,
and protect what your right hand has planted
the son of man whom you yourself made strong.

R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

May your help be with the man of your right hand,
with the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
Then we will no more withdraw from you;
give us new life, and we will call upon your name.

R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

When I read this psalm, and think about the Scandinavian people, I think of  Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset and her quest for truth. Her novels (the most famous is Kristin Lavransdatter) are about women and men realizing their own faults and facing them unflinchingingly; seeking truth outside themselves, looking for honesty in romantic relationships and seeing one's self clearly as a mother, father, wife, husband, son, daughter, and ultimately as a child of God. Sigrid was raised agnostic and modern, she chose to become a Christian (a Catholic Christian in Lutheran Norway in the 1930s) and separated from her husband because of this choice (he had been married before and his first wife was still living).

Lucy may have been raised a Christian or converted later in her childhood, but at some point, she decided to dedicate her life to Christ completely. She vowed to live as a virgin and give her bridal dowry to the poor. Her intended fiancee was angry and had her arrested, and ultimately tortured and killed because she would not change her mind to give up her faith.

These brave women remind me that we all have to face difficulties in life, whether they are little ones that seem trivial (saying no to gossip, or finding that you've been gossiped about) or big ones, such as they faced. Knowing the Truth and keeping the Vision in front of us helps us to bear the hurts, both big and little, and also to confront the pain we may have inflicted on others.

Alleluia Lk 3:4, 6

R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths:
All flesh shall see the salvation of God.

R. Alleluia, alleluia.

These are the words of John the Baptist. 
And Lucy says them too with her flames and crown, with the witness of her life.
Yes, Lucy lights the way.
A light in the midst of winter to remind us of summer's return.
A light in the darkness that points us toward the coming of Christ.
St. Lucy Day is a reminder to prepare, in the same way that St. John the Baptist says "prepare!"
Christmas is coming, the Lord is coming. The winter will end, and the sun return.

Do you know about the tradition called Ember Days?

They are seasonal days of penance held after certain dates on the calendar leading up to the traditional quarter days (Christmas, Annunciation, St. John's Day, Michaelmas).  These days are set aside for prayer, for the blessing of the earth and our human care of it (preparing, planting, growing, harvesting), for fasting and thanksgiving.

St. Lucy's Day is the marker for the Advent Ember Days. This coming Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are the Ember Days of wintertime. Her day reminds us to prepare ourselves for Christmas, through prayer, confession, charity, love for others
The tradition of Lucy bearing the saffron buns is a remind of her generosity to the poor. Whether you hold the tradition today by having the oldest daughter in the house bring coffee and pastries to the family in bed before dawn, or you attend a community service to hear seasonal songs, watch the star boys, handmaidens and Lucy process with candles and enjoy treats in the church afterward, the point is to remember Lucy's charity.

If you live in an area with no such ceremony to participate in, an act or gift of charity on this day is in keeping with the spirit of Lucy. Actually, an act of charity should always be part of any feast day or saint's day remembrance.

I also use this time as reminder to get to confession before Christmas, whenever it is available during Advent. The schedule at the parish church may be a little different than usual because of all the different activities going on, so make sure to check before you go. The Friday of Ember Days is traditionally a day of abstinence from meat or other penance, and Ember Saturdays were often the days of priestly ordinations. Doing something nice for your local priests or seminarians, and offering prayers for them, would be appropriate on this day.

The Ember Days this week are December 17, 19, and 20th.

Gospel: Matthew 17:9a, 10-13
As they were coming down from the mountain,
the disciples asked Jesus,
“Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
He said in reply, “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things;
but I tell you that Elijah has already come,
and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. 
So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.”
Then the disciples understood
that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

The story of Lucy's martyrdom is not pleasant. Most Catholic images of Lucy show her with a plate of eyes, some with the martyr's palm, and fewer with a sword stabbed into her neck, or with bleeding wounds of any kind. John the Baptist was beheaded and his head placed upon a plate to please Herod's niece as punishment for preaching against the world and for repentance and Christ.

Lucy is one of thousands of martyrs to suffer in a similar way, and like all of them, she also calls us to repent of our sins, to love others, and to love Christ, to look for the light in the midst of winter, and have faith in the return of the sun.

Lucy belongs in my winter tradition because she reminds me to
make ready, 
light the lights! 

Christmas is coming!
Christ is coming!

How different those two phrases are, and yet they are the same. 

So there is my very long meditation on St. Lucy's Day, and I am sure I have more to learn and incorporate into my devotional life as the years go by. This year, at my house, there were no saffron buns or candle crowns, but we did observe St. Lucy's Day in other ways that are also part of the tradition, bringing light into the darkness, giving love to others and giving thanks to God.

You can see how we've celebrated St. Lucy in the past in my post called Winter Saints.


  1. Lovely post! I think the story and legends around St. Lucia are so fascinating. And love seeing all the beautiful Lucia images you've collected as well. Thanks for joining in the procession! Christmas Blessings to you!~

    1. Thank you for stopping by! The first image is my current favorite, with Italian Lucy in the red vest with green bow.I find the calendar's development over the years an endless source of fascination.