Was there a historical Santa Lucia?

Next Wednesday on Dec. 13 my Scandinavian neighbors, as is their annual custom, will celebrate Santa Lucia Day. Was Santa Lucia a real person?

Ever since the mid 18th century the Feast of Santa Lucia has been celebrated all over Sweden and Norway on Dec. 13. Yet, no one knows for sure why this 4th Century Sicilian Roman Catholic saint came to be so celebrated in predominantly Lutheran Scandinavia.

In literature, Lucia appears an angel (as a symbol of illuminating grace) in Dante’s Inferno. For Roman Catholics, in the Canon of the Mass, Lucia is one of only seven women (aside from the Virgin Mary) to be commemorated by name. The familiar song titled, Santa Lucia was the first song ever translated from Neapolitan into Italian.

The story about Lucia can be traced to Italy. Lucia was a young wealthy Christian bride-to-be who gave away her dowry to the poor, an act which angered her prospective groom and caused him to report her for her Christian beliefs to the Roman authorities. Lucia was condemned to death by fire.

Legend has it that just before she died an intense inner light transformed Lucia and everyone present fell prostrate. Thus Lucia, a sign of light and hope to the poor, died illuminated by a heavenly glow on Dec. 13 in A.D.304.

In actuality, Lucia was probably a victim of the wave of persecution of Christians that occurred late in the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. References to her have been found in early Roman sacramentaries and at Syracuse in an inscription dating from AD 400.

The Lucia legend spread to Sweden at a time of great famine. In the province of Vanern, a large vessel appeared on the lake and at its helm stood a maiden dressed in a gleaming white robe. Believed to be Santa Lucia, she guided the ship along the lakeshore, distributing food to the poor and hungry. The ship disappeared as soon as its mission was completed.

Santa Lucia festivities, with pageantry and good food, mark the first day of the Scandinavian Christmas season that begins on Dec. 13 and lasts one month until Jan. 13. Santa Lucia day begins very early in the morning on Dec. 13 in Scandinavian homes. The oldest daughter of the house, usually dresses in a long white gown, dons a crown of evergreens and lighted candles on her head, sings the beautiful song “Santa Lucia,” and serves special Lucia cakes and warm drinks to the rest of the family who are still in bed.