How and why Italy celebrates Santa Lucia on December 13th

Say “Santa Lucia” and many people would think of Scandinavians carrying candles – but Saint Lucy’s day on December 13th is also a big event in parts of her Italian homeland.

How and why Italy celebrates Santa Lucia on December 13th
The Saint Lucia's Day parade in Syracuse, Sicily. Photo: Fabrizio Villa/AFP

Who was Santa Lucia?

The historical Lucia came from what is today Italy: specifically, 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.

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.

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

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).

The day is celebrated particularly in the more religious south of Italy, and especially in coastal areas.

It’s often 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

Many towns and cities will put on a special Christmas market on this date.

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, 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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Wine, masks and debauchery: How did Italy’s Carnival tradition begin?

Towns across Italy are holding pageants and parades as Carnival season begins, but few people know the true origins of this festivity, writes Silvia Marchetti.

Wine, masks and debauchery: How did Italy’s Carnival tradition begin?

Masks, wild costumes, confetti, fried frappe and castagnole – Carnival’s back. But not everyone knows that these festivities date back to the dawn of time.

“At exactly the same time of the year, now, the Ancient Greeks celebrated the Baccanali, which they likely imported from Mesopotamia. Then the Romans turned the Greek partying into the Saturnali and Lupercali”, says Giorgio Franchetti, an historian of Ancient Rome.

READ ALSO: Beyond Venice: Seven of Italy’s most magical carnivals

During the Baccanali – feasts held in honor of Bacchus, or Dioysius, the god of wine – revelers would dance and get drunk on wine mixed with honey, which allowed them to let loose, free their souls and connect with the divinities and the afterworld. The wine supposedly sent them into a physical and spiritual ecstasy, a sort of purifying trance.

The ancient Romans took these wild events further. The Saturnali celebrations, in honor of Saturno, who was also the god of agriculture, coincided with the sowing of the fields and fertility rites.

“Lumps of earth would be overturned to allow the seeds to sink in, in the same way the Saturnali triggered an overturning of the established order, social roles and hierarchies: women would dress as men, men as women, slaves as masters, masters as slaves, and all partook in extreme acts”, says Franchetti. Wine and lavish meals went on for a week, and nobody, not even the slaves, worked.

Revellers in masks and costumes take part in the Venice Carnival. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

The destruction of the known order of things by allowing people to vent out their desires and instincts once a year was necessary to maintain the establishment of such order. Creating chaos was the only rule; it was a blank cheque to debauchery.

Italians still have a saying: “A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale” (during Carnival any kind of trick goes). Morality and taboos drop, transgression takes over, the boundaries between evil and good, profane and sacred, blur.

READ ALSO: Did Valentine’s Day really originate in Italy?

The Saturnali were the celebration of a topsy-turvy subversive world, where disguises and masks concealed identities and allowed revelers to act with total freedom and commit all sorts of mischief.

Sexuality plays a key part: extreme sexual activity and sex role reversal triggered a strong fertility force believed to regenerate nature ahead of spring.

February was also when the empire honored the Febbris goddess, worshipped by the pre-Roman Etruscans too as a bringer of purification.

“The Ancient Romans had another festival as well during our period of Carnival; it was called Lupercali in honor of the god-wolf Luperco, otherwise known as Caco or Fauno, whose cult hails back to the Etruscans”, says Franchetti.


Luperco represented the most vicious human passions and animal instincts, and in his name a free pass to perversion was granted to the people.

According to Franchetti, who studied ancient sources, during the Lupercali drunk partygoers would wrap themselves in animal skins, before taking them off to run naked across the Roman forum – men, women and slaves alike. Random coupling and animal sacrifices were carried out. 

The nakedness symbolized that, for one moment of the year, all were equal. Wars paused, famine became a momentary abundance of food. It was a break from the harsh reality of authority. During one such Lupercali it is said even Julius Caesar participated and foresaw his future coronation as emperor, as in a vision.

When Christianity came along it overlapped with these pagan celebrations, making the need for social release even stronger.

Catholicism regulated and integrated carnival into the Christian calendar, marking it as a pre-Lent festivity.  And Lent, the 40-days period of reflection and profound soul-cleansing in preparation for Easter with fasting and penance, stopped the wild parties.

READ ALSO: Pagan witches and Mussolini: Why Italy’s Epiphany holiday has a curious history

Franchetti explains that the origin of the term ‘carnival’ stems from the Latin ‘carnem levare’, meaning ‘farewell to meat’, to mark Shrove Tuesday, the last day when eating fat or meat, considered an extravagance, was still allowed before Lent.

The perception and existence of a tyrannical church that terrified sinners with images of hell and punished vices, lust and amorality, only intensified peoples’ desire to have fun during carnival. 

And even the clergy couldn’t resist the party: for two centuries during the middle ages masked priests celebrated “the feast of the crazy” by using sausages instead of sacramental bread for mass. 

“If it wants to survive, society’s structured order needs Carnival as a momentary worship of chaos and disorder, to justify and strengthen such order”, says Franchetti.