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The Festival of Santa Lucia is a Scandinavian winter tradition that honors Saint Lucy. This celebration is actually a saint of Sicilian origin. It is believed by many that the Santa Lucia Festival, celebrated on the 13th of December, is relatable to early Viking celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Since Santa Lucia is associated with light, and with spiritual sight, the Festival brings light into the darkness of the winter months.
Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia was a young girl who lived in about 300 CE. At a young age, her Christianity made her the target of anti-Christian sentiment. She was blinded and executed. Lucy is now associated with both light in the darkness and sight. The festival of Santa Lucia celebrates the light brought to one of the darkest days of the year, just as Lucy’s faith shown in a dark period for early Christians.
In many villages in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, the Festival of Santa Lucia is a national holiday. The festival begins early in the morning for some families, with the oldest daughter, called the Lucia bride, bringing coffee and buns to the family. She is garbed in white to represent purity. Sisters wear wreaths and belts of tinsel, and brothers may wear hats with stars on them.
Most towns have a festival and parade on Santa Lucia. Each town picks a representative Lucia bride, and all march carrying candles. It is also a tradition to give gifts or to make donations to charity on this holiday, especially charities that help the blind. This is connected to the saint and her mother distributing all their wealth after Lucia’s mother was cured of an illness by the sepulcher of Saint Agatha.
The parade often includes many carols to Santa Lucia and to Christ. In fact, in Scandinavian countries, many consider the festival to be the beginning of Christmas. This differs from observance in Christmas in other countries, where Christmas begins on Christmas and ends on Epiphany, which is the sixth of January.
When the parade is over, many continue the celebration with traditional foods. Ginger cookies and saffron buns are popular. As well, apple cider, or wine with spices helps to take off the chill. Many have full meals. In Sweden, a smorgasbord of familiar Swedish foods may be served.
I was in Italy several years ago, where they also celebrate Santa Lucia. Santa Lucia has really become a Sicilian tradition which is celebrated with food and presents for children.
The whole holiday is meant to commemorate a famine that took place in 1646. When the people were just about to starve, they held a Mass, and ships with food miraculously turned up afterwards. So when they celebrate the day now, they only eat beans and vegetables to remind themselves of the famine and the miracle of Santa Lucia.
Another story I have heard about Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, was that she and her mother used to go out at night, against her fiance's wishes, and give money and food to the poor. They would often use candles to light their way while doing this. It was while doing this that she was caught by her fiance and arrested, leading to her death.
I don't know if this story is true, but it does give another hint as to why so many people enjoy celebrating her, and why they do so at night, by candlelight, with good food and drink.