The feast of St. Lucia that falls on December 13 has always fascinated scholars, and one of the most felt Christmas celebrations in many regions of Europe.
But what are the origins of this cult?

St. Lucia
Saint Lucia celebrations in Sweden

history and origins of the feast of St. Lucia

What is attested, of course, is that on the day 13 December the saint died in Syracuse, so much so that it was celebrated and remembered in the Christian tradition (also mentioned in the divine Dante’s comedy). However, it seems that the cult of the saint served to supplant pagan traditions that survived in the Po Valley area during the winter solstice period, since before the Gregoran calendar was reformed excluding a few days, December 13 coincided with the longest night of the year.

However, and very uncertain what the origins of the cult were, some neopagan groups would like to trace the cult to the tradition of yule in honor of the new lights testifying that the name lucia (feminine of lucius/lucifer root lux name given to children born at dawn) was in honor of the new light.

However, it is fair to believe that if there was a pagan correspondence this should not be found in the “light” but “in the shadows” of the longest night of the year celebrated by the Germanic peoples as modraniht, so it is conceivable that during the Norman conquest the Nordic peoples brought with them traits of their culture in Sicily so much that even today in Sweden is elected a representative of the saint who participates in the procession of Syracuse. (although it is attested that the Norman conquest is 1010 and the saint died about 300 A.D.)

What is certain is that Lucia is probably a transposition of the Greek Artemis, since in the very city of Syracuse he offered worship since the Classical period, to this goddess and that his sacred number was precisely the number 13.

Hagiography of the Saint

Lucia’s hagiography is handed down from two ancient and distinct sources such as a Passio of the Greek code Papadoupolos and the Acts of the Martyrs both dating back to the end of the 5th century; it tells of a young woman born at the end of the 3rd century, belonging to a noble Christian family of Syracus, orphaned by her father from the age of five and promised in marriage to a pagan albeit in secret vow of virginity. Lucia’s mother, Eutychia, who had been ill with bleeding for years, had spent large sums on treatment, but nothing benefited her. Then Lucia and Eutychia went on a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Agatha, a Catalan martyr in 231, begging her to intercede for healing. In Catania, on February 5, the year 301, dies Natalis of St. Agatha, Lucia abstained during prayer and saw in a dream the Catalan saint surrounded by angelic hosts to tell her: “Lucia my sister, virgin consecrated to God, because you ask me what you can Grant? In fact, your faith has benefited your mother, and here she has become healthy. And as for me the city of Catania is blessed, so for you will be honored the city of Syracuse.”

Upon seeing Eutychia’s healing, on their way back to Syracuse, Lucia told her mother her firm decision to dedicate herself to Christ, and to give her heritage to the poor. For the next three years, she lived in the service of the sick, needy and widows of the city. The suitor, seeing the desired Lucia deprive himself of all the belongings and having been rejected by the latter, wanted revenge by denouncing her as a Christian. In fact, the decrees of the ferocious persecution of Christians issued by the Emperor Diocletian were in force.

At the trial she supported before the prefect Pascasio, Lucia refused the order to sacrifice to the pagan gods, attesting to her unwavering faith and pride in proclaiming herself a Christian, citing the scriptures with a sum of erudition. Threatened at the time of being led into a post-repous, Lucia replied: “The body is only contaminated if the soul consents.”

santa lucia
St. Lucia led to martyrdom,  Pietro Novelli del XVII sec.


The close dialogue between her and the magistrate saw her positions overturned, so much so that she saw Lucia put Pascasio in difficulty. Pascasio then ordered that the young woman be forced, but, as tradition tells, it became miraculously heavy, so much so that neither dozens of men nor the strength of oxen were able to move her. Accused of witchcraft, Lucia was then doused in oil, placed on wood and tortured with fire, but the flames did not touch her. She was finally brought to her knees and ended up with a sword by beheading, or according to Latin sources, a dagger was placed in her throat (jugulario), in the year 304 at the age of twenty-one. He died only after receiving Communion and prophesied the fall of Diocletian and peace for the Church.

Lacking any foundation and absent in the many narratives and traditions, at least until the 15th century, it is the episode in which Lucia would have torn – or would have hollowed her eyes. The emblem of the eyes on the cup, or on the plate, would be to be reconnected, more simply, with the popular devotion that has always invoked it protector of sight because of the etymology of its name from the Latin Lux, light.

Attested by the written testimony of an eyewitness, it is the miraculous end of the famine of the year 1646. On Sunday, December 13, 1646, a quail was seen hovering inside the Syracuse Cathedral during Mass. When the quail rested on the Episcopal iche, a voice announced the arrival at the port of a bastion laden with wheat. The people saw in that ship the answer given by Lucia to the many prayers that had been addressed to her, and for the great hunger did not expect to grind it but consumed it boiled.

The spread of worship

“The memory of Saint Lucia, a virgin and martyr, who guarded, as long as he lived, the lamp lit to meet the Bride and, in Syracuse in Sicily led to death for Christ, deserved to enter with him the wedding of heaven and to possess the light that knows no sunset.”

From the day her body was laid in the catacombs that took her name, Lucia was immediately revered as a saint by the Syracusans and her tomb became a destination for pilgrimages. In the introduction to the historical novel Lucia by René du Mesnil de Maricourt of 1858, Ampelio Crema wrote: “The first and fundamental testimony of Lucia’s existence is given to us by a Greek inscription discovered in June 1894 during archaeological excavations of the Professor Paolo Orsi in the catacomb of St. John, the most important of Syracuse: it shows us that, already at the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the fifth, a Syracusan – as deduced from the epigraph to his wife Euschia – had a strong and tender devotion to “his” Saint Lucia, whose anniversary was already commemorated by a liturgical feast. This inscription was found on a floor burial, engraved on a square marble headstone, measuring 24×22 cm and having a thickness of 3 cm, cut irregularly. The two sides of the stone had been covered with lime, indicating that the tomb had been breached.” So reads the epigraph or inscription of Euschia:

“Euschia, irreproachable, lived good and pure for about 25 years, died on the feast of my Saint Lucia, for which there is no praise as it is worth. Christian, faithful, perfect, grateful to her husband of a deep gratitude.”

IThe cult of Lucia soon spread outside Sicily as evidenced by the presence of her name in the ancient Geronimian martyrology, the mention in the Roman Canon of Mass by Gregory the Great (604 A.D.), devotion in Rome, where they were dedicated in her honor about twenty churches and in northern Italy, where she was effigy in Ravenna in the Basilica of St. Apollinare New in the procession of virgins. The cult also came to England, where it was celebrated until the Protestant Reformation with a day when work was not allowed, and in the Greek church, where St. John Damadalian himself composed the liturgy.

santa lucia
Processione delle vergini. Mosaico della navata della Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo a Ravenna

Relics of his body were requested and donated in more parts of Europe such as in France and Portugal.

the longest night of the year

The liturgical memory occurs on 13 December. Prior to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar (1582), the festival fell near the winter solstice (hence the saying “Holy Lucia the shortest day there is”), but it no longer coincided with the adoption of the new calendar for a difference of 10 Days.
The celebration of the festival on a day near the winter solstice is probably also due to the desire to replace ancient folk festivals that celebrate light and are celebrated at the same time in the northern hemisphere. Other religious traditions celebrate the light in periods close to the winter solstice such as the Jewish Hanukkah festival, which lasts eight days as the celebrations for the saint in Syracuse, or the feast of Diwali celebrated in India. The cult of Saint Lucia also has several similarities to the cult of Artemis, the ancient Greek deity revered in Syracuse on the island of Ortigia. In Artemis, as in Saint Lucia, the quaglia and the island of Ortigia – also called Delo in honor of the goddess of hunting – were sacred. Artemis and Lucia are both virgins. Artemis is also seen as the goddess of light as she clutches two lit and flaming torches in her hand.

Cult of St Lucia in Sweden

santa lucia in svezia
Saint Lucia in Sweden

In Sweden, Lucia is highly revered, both by the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Children prepare cookies and confectionery (among them, saffron and raisin scones called lussekatters) starting December 12. On the morning of the 13th, the family’s eldest daughter gets up even before dawn and dresses in a long white dress tied at the waist by a red belt; the head is adorned with a wreath of leaves and seven useful candles to see clearly in the darkness. The sisters, who wear a white shirt, symbolize the stars. Males wear straw hats and wear long sticks decorated with stars. The little girl dressed as Saint Lucia wakes up the other family members and serves them the cookies cooked the previous day.

In the Scandinavian country there is a traditional song by Saint Lucia (Luciasingen) which is nothing more than the famous Neapolitan “Santa Lucia” adapted with a Swedish-language text. In several cities, some little girls parade dressed as Saint Lucia, singing the Luciasingen from house to house.

Every year the Lucia of Sweden is elected and will reach the Sicilian city of Syracuse to participate in the procession of the eighth, in which the simulacrum of Saint Lucia is brought back to the Cathedral.


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