How did a Sicilian virgin martyr become the center of a Scandinavian winter festival—particularly one rife with such obvious pagan symbolism? In point of fact, no one is exactly sure, but the Feast of St. Lucy—Santa Lucia—observed annually on December 13, is ancient on one hand and surprisingly recent in its Norse guise.
Almost nothing is known about St. Lucy. She was reported to be the daughter of a wealthy and/or noble family from Syracuse in Sicily in the early Fourth Century. Syracuse was a sophisticated city originally founded as a Greek city state. Lucy may have been descendent of the Greek aristocracy, more recent Roman rulers, or both.
Historically she has been pictured as a blonde, which suggests a Greek origin, although no one knows what she looked like.
Lucy—he name in Latin meant “light”—was evidently a devout Christian during a time when members of the Church were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire. The traditional story has it that her pagan mother arranged a marriage to a rich and powerful pagan man. Lucy protested and vowed to save herself for Christ. After she prayed for a miracle that saved her mother’s life, her mother relented. But the jilted suitor was enraged.
Here the story breaks down into many versions. Either the swain tortured and killed Lucy, or he ratted her out as a Christian to local authorities. Those authorities, or the far-off Emperor Diocletian himself, ordered her execution and/or torture. Depending on the tale her eyes were first plucked out—a story that would later make her the patron saint of the bind—then she was stabbed in the throat with sword while she was proclaiming her love of Christ. Or she was burned alive, but for a while the fire would not consume her and she continued to testify. In the end, no matter the details, she was a martyr to her faith and virginity.
Within a century she was the center of a cult venerating her as a saint, centered in Rome. Veneration of her spread throughout the Empire, which by then was officially Christian. Her feast day became one of the most important on the calendar. Many legends sprang up about her and the miracles she performed.
One might assume that the Scandinavian veneration of her feast day dated to the era when the Norse countries were still Catholic. But although her feast was undoubtedly on the liturgical calendar, there is no evidence of special celebrations during that time, at least by the Church.
Some historians believe that stories of St. Lucy may have entered the folk culture of the north after the Viking Normans conquered the island and established the Kingdom of Sicily in 1160. As a matter of fact, there is historic evidence of the Normans introducing those stories and elevating the status of St. Lucy’s feast in Britain, where her feast day was thought to co-inside with the shortest day of the year, which was pretty close under the old Julian calendar. Unfortunately, there is no hard evidence that this was communicated to the Normans’ stay-at-home cousins in Scandinavia.
The Feast of Santa Lucia in its current form did not seem to be celebrated until after both Norway, in 1537, and Sweden, in 1597 adopted Lutheranism as the state religion. But Lutherans do not typically venerate saints.
One line of conjecture has it that in response to Luther’s ban on St. Nicholas as a winter holiday gift giver, replacing him with Kindchen Jesus, or Christkind, a German Lutheran cousin. This theory conjectures that in Sweden young women or girls were robed in white to portray the Christ child and that somehow, over centuries, this morphed into a portrayal of the Sicilian Saint.
As developed an practiced in Sweden by the early 19th Century, the custom was for the eldest daughter of a family in a white robe for purity, a red sash for martyrdom, and a crown of glowing candles would enter the master bedroom of a home at dawn leading a procession of other women and girls of the family each carrying a candle. The flaming crown was said to represent the return of light, an idea fraught with pre-Christian, pagan symbolism. Or, to take a more Christian interpretation, it is meant to symbolize the fire that could not consume St. Lucy in some versions of the tale.
The leading girl with her crown comes bearing gifts of sweets, coffee and cakes. She and the others in the procession sing a song about the saint. In more recent times it is Neapolitan song Santa Lucia with lyrics adapted locally. After the gifts are presented to the parents in their bed the girls would go on to sing other songs, usually Christmas carols.
This form of celebration evidently originated in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 18th century and spread slowly to other parts of the country and eventually to Norway, Finland, Denmark, and areas around the Baltic. Each region adopted variations to the “tradition.”
This festival was always a home observance and not part of either church or public ritual.
Public observations in Sweden did not begin until a Stockholm newspaper promoted one in 1927. Now most cities and many schools, elect a Santa Lucia each year for popular public processionals. The eve of the festival has become a popular party night, particularly with young people and university students.
In Norway, where the tradition never took as deep a root, the private celebrations of Santa Lucia had faded away in all but isolated and remote rural areas. But during the Nazi occupation of World War II, the custom was revised as statement of cultural pride. The symbolism of bringing light into the darkness obviously had political implications. The collaborationist Quisling government tried to outlaw the practice. Which, of course, only made it more popular.
After liberation, public Santa Lucia processionals became popular and the home custom has nearly faded to extinction.
The Scandinavian countries, despite both still having official Lutheran state churches, are among the most thoroughly secular in the world. Santa Lucia Day, never an official holiday, has been stripped of virtually all religious meaning and is celebrated as a joyous ethnic festival. In fact, the neo-pagan symbolism of the occasion has probably only made it more popular than ever.