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St Lucia's Day

Today (December 13th) is my saint's day and though it's not widely celebrated here in my homeland, I discovered that in Scandinavian countries it marks the beginning of the Christmas celebrations and acts as an occasion to bring light into the darkness. In the old Julian calendar December 13th fell on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice and, aptly, the name Lucia (or Lucy, in its English version) comes from the Latin word for 'light'.

The legend of St Lucia goes that in 304 AD she was a wealthy young Christian woman living on the isle of Sicily. Unfortunately this was during the last great persecution of Christians, led by the Emperor Diocletian. After she prayed to St Agatha, her ailing mother was miraculously cured and Lucia persuaded her to distribute her wealth among the poor. Lucia also gave up her dowry and her proposed marriage to a pagan man, committed to a life of chastity. Enraged, her suitor denounced her to the Roman authorities who had her tortured. They tore out her eyes and set her to be burned alive but the flames would not harm her. Finally a soldier pierced her with a sword (or, in some versions of the tale, beheaded her) but before she died her eyesight was restored. Thus she became the patron saint of the blind, as well as of Sicily. Later, a famine is said to have ended after the Sicilians prayed to her, ships loaded with grain arriving in the harbour.

In parts of Italy her day is celebrated much as St Nicolas's day and Christmas are elsewhere in Europe. Children leave food out for her and her flying donkey, who helps her to carry gifts that she leaves for them in the night. They're not allowed to see her delivering these gifts; if caught she will throw ashes into their eyes temporarily blinding them! And naughty children will get coal instead of presents. In remembrance of the ended famine, a boiled wheat dish they called Cuccia is eaten.

It is in Sweden, however, that her day is most recognised. Traditionally, the oldest daughter of the family dresses in a white gown and wears a wreath of lit candles on her head. On the morning of St Lucia's Day she brings coffee and Lussekatt (Lucy cats, special Lucia day saffron buns), to wake her family. There are also Lucia Day processions in which young girls and boys dressed in white gowns and bearing candles sing traditional Lucia day carols, lead by the elected Lucia who wears a candle-wreath and a red sash (symbolising the saint's martyred blood). They visit schools, hospitals, offices and churches, distributing gingerbread biscuits and Lussekatt.

Fancy celebrating St Lucy's Day yourself? Make your own Cuccia or Lussekatt, and here are some more suggestions.

Enjoy - Lucy

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