Legends of St. Lucia
What do Norse Vikings, Swedish farmers, an Italian peasant girl,
and an English Bishop have in common? Based on the reason we
are all here today, you might guess St. Lucia Day. And you would
be right. The interesting story is in who and the why.
Let’s start with the Norse Vikings. According to the old Julian
calendar, December 13 is the darkest day. In modern times with
our Gregorian calendar, we know this to be December 21st and
22nd.. the shortest day and the longest night for those of us, like the
Vikings, in the Northern Hemisphere.. otherwise known as the
Winter Solstice. This darkest day was not a day to be out on a
boat, but rather to be inside.. possibly burning a log to keep warm,
for a tradition that would later become the winter festival.. or
burning of the Yule Log.
Likewise, December 13 was the day the ancient pagan
Scandinavian farmers offered sacrifices for good crops for the
coming summer. These sacrifices would usually involve building
a ceremonial fire to light the night. The word Lucia refers to light
in several languages. It is perhaps in this way that the person of St.
Lucia, who we will talk about soon, became mingled with the
legends of Lucia in Scandinavian countries.
There are a number of old legends of Lucia in Sweden. An old
legend from the province of Dalsland, names Lucia as the bride of
light. The legend says that on December 13, Lucia will appear
riding in a lusse-cart, similar to a chariot, and if the cart breaks
down, you will get lice in your hair. On Lucia night, the threshing
of grain must be finished to insure a bountiful crop the next year,
the horses should have on winter shoes, and all new-born babies
should be baptized before Lucia night or the trolls would come and
whisk them away forever.
Another old legend tells of Lucia being seen in the Swedish
province of Vermland during a great famine. Lucia, robed in white
came across Lake Venern in a large ship. She commanded the ship
to dock at different places and distributed food to the starving
people. The people who lived in Vermland claimed Lucia was the
queen of supernatural beings and was a worker of miracles.
But these Nordic stories are more myth than fact. To understand
why we celebrate St. Lucia Day today, we need to look at the
actual person. An English bishop from the Seventh Century, St.
Aldhelm, gave us the story of St. Lucia as we know it today. His
story has not been proven to be historically correct, but his story
stresses why the young maiden Lucia was a Christian honored by
the early church.
Lucia was born in Syracuse, Sicily in Italy. Her mother, a widow,
raised her in the Christian faith. Lucia made a vow to God never
to marry and to devote her life to serving Christ and the poor.
There was a young man who wanted to marry Lucia. Lucia told
her mother her secret vow and asked for her inheritance which
would have been her dowry. Lucia used her inheritance to help the
poor and needy. The story tells of Lucia bringing food to the
Christians hiding in the caves. In order to bring with her as many
supplies as possible, she needed to have both hands free. She
solved this problem by attaching candles to a wreath on her head.
Meanwhile, the rejected young man accused her of aiding and
abetting the Christians. Lucia was brought before the Roman
Court and was asked to renounce her faith in Christ, but she
refused. The court condemned her to die a martyr’s death. Later
the Church declared Lucia a saint of the Church and patron saint of
the blind, as she had brought so much light to the world and yet it
is believed she lost her sight during her persecution. The story of
St. Lucia resonated particularly in Scandinavia where it became
mingled with those earlier Norse legends we discussed. Today it is
one of the very few saint days observed in Scandinavia.
So however the St. Lucia celebration came to be, the St. Lucia Day
celebration is a combination of remembering old folklore traditions
and honoring a saint. Put the two together, the religious and the
folklore, and you create a warm and joyous day dedicated to
finding of light in the darkness.
St. Lucia is not a preparation for Christmas in the same sense as
Advent is. It is a reminder of St. Lucia herself and her sacrificial
giving to the poor and her devotion to Christ. The life of St. Lucia
and a Lucia celebration direct us to Christ – the Light of the World.
A St. Lucia celebration stresses the importance of light and the
coming of light. Light as warmth, light as promise, light as hope,
light as life and light shining in the darkness. The Light of Christ
shining in our dark world.
Today we celebrate that light just as the Norse Vikings, Swedish
farmers, an Italian peasant girl, and an English Bishop all did.
Not used in this version:
Let’s begin with a little poem found in Traditional Swedish books:
Now light one thousand Christmas lights
On dark earth here tonight
One thousand, thousand also shine
To make the dark sky bright.
It is a beautiful poem that conjures up images of deep winter nights and a dark star-filled
sky. It speaks to the history of St. Lucia and the light that her memory brings to the
world. But who is St. Lucia and why do we celebrate her day?