Every year on December 13, we remember St. Lucy, a young Christian woman who lived in Sicily during the 4th century. In a time when many Christians were persecuted for their faith, Lucy (“light”) brought food to poor Christians hiding in the catacombs. To light her way while keeping her hands free to carry food, she fashioned a candle-lit wreath for her head. She was later martyred for her faith.
St. Lucy's legend lives on today in Scandinavian countries, where winters can be long and dark. Our friend Line Nichols is from Norway, and she graciously agreed to talk with us about her memories of St. Lucy's Day.
To start off, tell us what St. Lucy's Day is all about.
St. Lucy, or Lucia as I grew up calling her, is one of the earliest Christian saints to gain popularity, having a widespread following before the 5th century. While very little is known about her life, according to legend, she devoted her life to Christ at an early age, and brought food to and aid to persecuted Christians hiding in caves, using a candle-lit wreath to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. Living in a time of severe persecution, she was also one of the early Christian martyrs, killed by the Romans in 304 AD. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebration of the winter solstice, with bonfires meant to scare off evil spirits, incorporated the legend of St. Lucia after the conversion to Christianity around 1000 AD, as a festival of light during the darkest time of the year.
In the modern celebration of St. Lucia, girls are dressed as Lucia in white dresses and carry candles in a procession of light, led by one girl with a crown or wreath of candles on her head. At schools a new Lucia is typically chosen every year. Boys participate as “star boys,” playing different roles associated with Christmas. The kids in the procession sing songs and hand out Lussekatter (saffron buns) and other Christmas cookies.
Growing up in Norway, what was St. Lucy's Day like for you?
Luciadagen (St. Lucy’s Day) is widely recognized across Scandinavia, even among the non-religious. It reminds us that Christmas is coming, and it offers a welcome break from our everyday activities. It's also a good reminder that the days are getting longer and lighter as winter can get long and dark up north.
Most preschools, daycares, and schools celebrate St. Lucy's Day with a procession of light. At my school, one grade was responsible for the procession every year and most girls wanted to be the main Lucia and have the honor of leading the procession throughout the school. I remember the anticipation as a child, hearing them reach the classroom next door while trying to focus on what the teacher was saying, and then finally the knock on the door, opening to a procession of girls and boys dressed in white, carrying candles, handing out saffron buns and singing the song we all knew by heart:
The night treads heavily
Around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun.
The shadows brood,
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
Even at my university, as students were frantically studying for their last finals before Christmas, when December 13 came around, St. Lucy’s Day offered a most welcome break from academics every year. Several preschools from around town dressed up and walked through campus in a procession of light, singing songs and handing out saffron buns and gingerbread cookies.
What was your favorite part of the day?
My favorite part was always the procession of light. Remember that while the sunrise here in Colorado in December is around 7 am, it was significantly darker where I grew up, and we didn't have daylight until 9:30 or 10 am this time of year, lasting only for about five hours, and farther north they have no daylight at all. There was something so magical as a child to hear the knock on the classroom door, to have the teacher turn off all the lights before opening to welcome a procession of singing, live candles, and the sweet smell of pepperkaker (gingerbread cookies) and saffron buns. Even as a child who didn't grow up learning about the significance of Christ at Christmastime, my heart was deeply moved by that image of light piercing the darkness.
What are simple things families can do to incorporate St. Lucy's Day into their Advent season?
Thankfully, celebrating St. Lucy’s day does not require much preparation. Find a few candles, live or electric, and white dresses or pajamas if you want to do a procession. But even just sitting down as a family either in the morning while it is still dark or in the afternoon after the sun sets is enough. Light the candles, read the legend of St. Lucy, and talk about the True Light that came down. And just like St. Lucy, whether we are carrying candle wreaths or not, we are the light of the world, pointing this world to Christ.
Have your children help you make make saffron buns, and bring them to neighbors, friends, or someone in need of encouragement and love. I also think this day can be a good day to pray with your children for persecuted Christians and the many Christians around the world who suffer because of their faith even today. Good resources for prayer and conversation about unreached people groups and the persecuted church are Joshua Project, Operation World (a project of WEC International), and Voice of the Martyrs.
Do you have a recipe for saffron buns?!
Yes! Check out the recipe here. These buns are delicious and will fill your home with a delightful aroma for the holidays.
Check out our page on Advent feastdays, including St. Lucy's Day, and read our essay "Following the Example of Saints." We think today is a perfect day to learn and teach about St. Lucy, a compassionate yet fearless young woman who paid the ultimate price for her faith. Here's a prayer for the day, drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary:
God of joy and exultation, you strengthen what is weak; you enrich the poor and give hope to those who live in fear. Look upon our needs this day. Make us grateful for the good news of salvation and keep us faithful in your service until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives for ever and ever. Amen.