Monday, December 24, 2012

The Winter Solstice and Saint Lucia

 Beccafumi's St. Lucia, 16th c.
Now that the Winter Solstice and the (fake) Mayan threat of apocalypse has passed, the holiday season has begun.  I would like to wish my readers a wonderful holiday whatever their religion may be, and  to keep my holiday greeting in accord with the costuming theme of this blog, I'd like to discuss the holiday celebration of Saint Lucia's Day, which is associated with the Christmas season in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe.

Saint Lucia was one of the early virgin martyrs of the Catholic Church. Wikipedia reports that Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy in modern English, supposedly was born in 283 CE and met her death in 304 CE.  She was betrothed to a pagan who, stung by her insistence upon maintaining her virginity and spending her life in prayer and good works, denounced her to the governor of Syracuse in Sicily.  The governor sought to arrest her, but, in a type of miracle often associated with the early Roman martyrs, her body became so heavy that she could not be physically moved even with a team of oxen, so the guards gouged out her eyes instead.  (Other versions of her legend claim that the jilted betrothed gouged out her eyes, and still others claim that, by the grace of God, they ultimately grew back before she died.)

In light (pun intentional) of her connection with vision, Lucy became the patron saint of the blind.  The Renaissance-era depiction of the saint, which appears on the left,* shows her wearing a white dress (symbolic of purity) and a red mantle (symbolic of martyrdom) carrying her hagiographical symbol or "attribute", which consists of her removed eyes sitting on a plate.  

Modern "Lucy brides"
The photograph on the right shows a modern ceremony in honor of Saint Lucia, wearing the unique costume that has become traditional for the role.  Girls portraying St. Lucia in Yuletide ceremonies wear a long-sleeved white gown with a bright red sash.  If there are a number of girls in the role, only one, chosen as the main "Lussibruden" (a Swedish word meaning "Lucy bride") wears a crown, often made from genuine or artificial evergreen foliage, with lighted candles fastened to it.  (Where very young girls, or very cautious parents, are involved, unlighted candles, battery-operated artificial candles, or other substitutes for lighted candles appear.)  The girls also carry lighted candles, often real but sometimes battery-operated or otherwise artificial.  (Little boys, dressed in white robes with white star-spangled "dunce"-style caps on their heads, often take part in the procession nowadays, but their presence seems like an afterthought, devised to avoid hurt feelings.)

In home Santa Lucia celebrations in Sweden, the family's oldest daughter typically dresses as the Lucy bride, and brings breakfast to the other members of the family, typically very early in the morning while all is still dark.  That meal features items like gingersnaps and special saffron buns (see photograph on the left below).   This ceremony is most commonly celebrated in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden, though it can also be found elsewhere in Europe.  

Saffron buns for St. Lucia Day
My interest in this feast day, of course, is this:  Where did the St. Lucia costume come from?  Though the costume incorporates the red and white colors associated with a virgin martyr, it does not truly resemble the medieval or Renaissance images of the saint.   Moreover, each picture I see of the ceremony features dresses that are different in fabric, cut, and ornamentation. The only common features of the Lucia costumes is that they are white, long-sleeved long dresses, belted (if at all) with a red sash, and worn with a crown or evergreen wreath of candles.

I could not find evidence that this particular form of veneration for St. Lucy is of great antiquity.  Although it seems that the form of ceremony known today has been celebrated throughout the 20th century, there appears to be no evidence of it before the end of the 18th century, and the custom of the Lucia bride feeding her family special buns as breakfast apparently dates to the 1880s.

It would take more research than I presently have time for to reach any firm conclusions about the origin of the Lucy brides and their special costume, but my guess is that both represent a marriage of Christian hagiography with remnants of a winter solstice celebration.   Lucy, or Lucia, comes from the Latin word "lux", meaning "light", and her feast day, December 13, was the date of the winter solstice under the old Julian calendar, which is why I am discussing now, shortly after the actual winter solstice instead of on December 13.  The white and red costume of the Lucy bride evokes the Christian symbolism of the virgin martyr, and her tray of round currant buns evokes the eyes-on-a-plate symbol that is characteristic of medieval images of Saint Lucia. 

And the evergreen wreath? It may trace back to nearly forgotten origins of a pagan Yule, or it may have arisen from antiquarian efforts, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, to attempt to recreate bits of ancient Yule rites from Scandinavia's pagan past. 

In other words, I'm suggesting that the Santa Lucia costume is essentially modern, whether or not the celebration itself is old.  The point of the costume is not to represent the alleged saint's actual appearance.  It's not even to preserve a tradition of what early "Lucy brides" may have looked like.  Instead, it symbolizes the Christian virgin martyr, who represented light and hope and life at the time of the year when darkness and death appear to have conquered all.   That element--the element of showing that light and life continue despite the winter darkness--probably does go back to prehistoric Scandinavia, even if every step and gesture made by the Lucy brides of today is modern.

So even if you're not Swedish, or European, or even Christian, spare a thought today for the wonderful custom of bearing light and food from out of the darkness, and have a safe and happy Christmas season.

* All photographs in this entry from Wikimedia Commons. The image of the modern St. Lucia girls was cropped by me from a Wikimedia Commons photograph.


  1. Great story. Rituals like this are fun to learn about. Very interesting angle on the costuming too. The saffron-bun "eyeballs" are the best part though :D

    1. You might find this interesting:

      Greetings, Kauna

    2. Kauna: Thanks for the URL to the article--it's very thought-provoking, especially in the way it shows how traditions persist even while they are mutating.

      You may find this poster interesting in light of the article: