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The surprising ways that Italy celebrates Santa Lucia

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The surprising ways that Italy celebrates Santa Lucia
The Saint Lucia's Day parade in Syracuse, Sicily. Photo: Fabrizio Villa/AFP
10:12 CET+01:00
Say “Santa Lucia” and most people think of Scandinavians carrying candles – but Saint Lucy's day on December 13th is also a big event in parts of her Italian homeland.

Who was she?

The historical Lucia came from what is today Italy: the city of Syracuse in Sicily.

Born to a wealthy family in the time of Roman rule, young Lucia had a vision of another Sicilian martyr, Saint Agatha, who helped her cure a chronic illness afflicting her mother.


Saint Lucia's remains at the church of San Geremia in Venice. Photo: Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons

She promptly donated her worldly goods to the poor, which angered the man her family had promised she would marry. He denounced her as a Christian – a crime then punishable by death – and she was sentenced to be sent to a brothel and raped.

Yet when guards came to take her away, her body became so heavy they couldn't move her. They then heaped kindling around her in order to burn her alive, but the wood wouldn't light.

After further attempts to torture her, Lucia was beheaded.

Where is she worshipped?

Lucia has been venerated by Italian Catholics for centuries, as the patron saint not only of Syracuse but of communes all over Italy. Churches from Naples to Milan keep relics from her remains, most of which are currently in San Geremia in Venice.

Her hometown of Syracuse has two major churches dedicated to her: the Basilica di Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, home to a miraculous statue of the saint that is once said to have sweated for three days, and Santa Lucia alla Badia, which boasts a Caravaggio painting of her burial.

   
Burial of Saint Lucy by Caravaggio

As you'd expect, Lucia's feast day is a big occasion in Sicily – but the north of Italy, especially Lombardy, has its own traditions of celebrating the saint that date back centuries.

What do Italians do on Saint Lucia's Day?

In Italy as in Sweden, Lucia's feast day – timed to coincide with the winter solstice according to an earlier calendar – is a symbol of light in the darkness (Lucia derives from lux, the Latin word for light).

Her festival is marked with fireworks or bonfires – for instance in Naples, where the faithful traditionally light fires at dawn all along the seafront leading to the church of Santa Lucia a Mare. Local fishermen are especially grateful to the saint for helping them to navigate the water in the dark of winter, and she is the subject of one of the city's most famous traditional songs

Sicilians celebrate with a parade in Syracuse, when a precious silver statue of the saint is carried through the town before being placed on display in the Basilica di Santa Lucia al Sepolcro. It's returned to the cathedral in a second parade seven days later.

In Sicily it's traditional to eat cuccìa, a sort of pudding made from boiled wheat kernels, in memory of the time Lucia supposedly saved the island from famine: in 1646, as Sicilians were starving, a boat filled with grain miraculously appeared in Palermo harbour on Saint Lucia's Day. The grateful residents were so hungry they ate the wheat whole without bothering to grind it.

Even now, many Sicilians abstain from eating bread and pasta on December 13th in honour of their saviour saint.


Photo: Fabrizio Villa/AFP

In the north of Italy, meanwhile, Santa Lucia celebrations are more indulgent. In parts of Veneto and Lombardy, especially Verona, Crema, Cremona and Bergamo, the saint has become a sort of Father Christmas figure, visiting in the night to bring children gifts.

Youngsters write letters and leave them out for her to find, while on the night before December 13th, they set out milk or coffee for Lucia, biscuits and wine for the helper who accompanies her, and flour or hay for the donkey she rides.

They must go bed and keep their eyes shut tight, however, or Lucia – the patron saint of sight – might throw stinging ash in their eyes. Obedient children wake up on Saint Lucia's Day to find sweets and presents awaiting them.


Hay left out for Saint Lucia's donkey in Crema. Photo: Cremasco/Wikimedia Commons

The tradition is said to stem from an occasion when Lucia saved Verona from an eye affliction that was plaguing the northern city's children. Desperate parents walked barefoot to her shrine, convincing reluctant children to join them by promising them that the saint would bring treats.

Other parts of Italy honour Lucia's association with eyes – one legend states that her torturers gouged out her eyes before she died, another that with light she brings sight – by making gli occhi di Santa Lucia, Saint Lucia's eyes.

Despite their slightly off-putting name, these little round biscuits made with flour, oil and white wine are a traditional December 13th treat in Puglia.

People everywhere in Italy have a more mundane reason to pay attention to Saint Lucia's Day: there's an Italian proverb, “Da Santa Lucia, il freddo si mette in via” – from Saint Lucia's Day, the cold is on its way. 

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