Ancient Tradition of the Winter Solstice: Festival of Santa Lucia
The winter solstice marks the start of the astronomical winter and the day of the year with the fewest hours of sunlight. Following the winter solstice, days get longer and nights shorter as spring approaches. Naturally, fire and light are salient symbols of hope during this time. For thousands of years, our ancestors marked this day with festivities, songs, dances, sacrifices, and meaning-making rituals. It was a time of celebration, of reflection, and most importantly, hope. People looked forward to Spring, the return of light, and the birth of a new sun and earth!
In light of this, no pun intended, I’d like to share with you a story of a Sicilian saint, an ancient headlight, a song, a recipe, and some fabulous photographs.
Who is Santa Lucia?
Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) is a Catholic saint who was born in Syracuse, Sicily, in 283 AD and became a martyr at the age of 20. Though she lived a considerably short life, she is still celebrated in different parts of the world almost two thousand years later.
Few facts are known about Lucia’s life and death, though several stories and legends have evolved over the centuries. Just about all of the stories start the same way: Lucia was born into a wealthy Sicilian family. At a time of Christian persecution, Lucia vowed at a young age to live her life in the service of Christ. Lucia’s mother attempted an arranged marriage for her daughter to a pagan man. When Lucia refused, the angry suitor reported her to Roman authorities, and Lucia subsequently was sentenced to life in a brothel and forced into prostitution. Staunchly loyal to her faith, Lucia benefitted from divine intervention: when it came time for her to be placed in the brothel by Roman guards, she became immovable; it was as if she had turned to stone and the guards could not move her. The soldiers then built piles of wood around her to burn her alive. Lucia was untouched by the flames and survived the inferno. They also attempted to take out her eyes but found them miraculously restored. Finally, Lucia met her death when stabbed through the neck with a sword.
St. Lucia’s feast day commemorates the day of her martyrdom, December 13th, which also was the shortest day of the year – Winter Solstice under the old Gregorian calendar. Because her name means “light,” many of the Yuletide’s ancient light and fire customs became associated with her day. Today’s Lucia celebrations involve the oldest daughter of the family dressing in a long white robe with a red sash around the waist, along with a crown of fresh greens and lit candles worn upon her head. The young lady rises before the rest of her family and serves them traditional Lussekatter (Lucia buns) and coffee. In many villages and towns across Sweden, Lucia processions, concerts, and celebrations signify the start of the Christmas season.
In Sicily, there is a legend of how there was great hunger in Syracuse, Sicily. The town’s people had gathered in the cathedral on Santa Lucia’s feast day, December 13th, to pray. Soon after, two ships loaded with wheat arrived, with her at the helm of one, dressed in white, with a halo of candles on her head. This story explains the cuccia, a kind of sweet porridge made with wheat berries, chocolate, sugar, and milk.
Music plays a large role in the festivities surrounding the Feast of Saint Lucy. This Neapolitan folk song is song across Italy and Scandinavia on December 13th. You can find a recording by Caruso here.
Santa Lucia, thy light is glowing
Through darkest winter night, Comfort bestowing.
Dreams float on dreams tonight
Comes then the morning light,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
If you’re looking for more music to celebrate the “return of light”, please enjoy this playlist filled with songs about light! The perfect soundtrack for a family dance party on this Winter Solstice!
About the Author
Natasha Kozaily is a Center for World Music Teaching Artist and a Member of the Board of Directors. She co-founded Kalabash School of Music and the Arts in La Jolla, California. To learn more about Natasha and her project, please visit her website at http://natashakozaily.com/.