Who was St. Lucia (Lucy)?

It’s a logical question, no? We Catholics have a lot of saints, which we employ for a variety of household purposes. But St. Lucy is one of the special ones, and very old. In fact she’s so old that very little is known about her. She lived during the Great Persecution, a ten-year period that started in the year 303 when a series of laws were passed erasing the limited legal rights of Christians in the Roman empire. Under them, all Christians were ordered to observe Roman religious practices (make sacrifices to Roman gods, etc.) on pain of death or imprisonment.

Lucy was one of those Christians, a native of Syracuse, Sicily, who at the time was engaged to a young Roman pagan-about-town. Her father had died many years prior and her mother had arranged the marriage as well as a substantial dowry. Things were going as planned until Lucy was visited by a vision of St. Agatha who told her she had a big future ahead of her as devout — and chaste — servant of the Lord. Once that happened she instructed her mother to give her dowry away to charity and her fiancé to get lost.

He didn’t take it well. In fact he was so ticked off that he outed Lucy as a Christian to the local Roman magistrate. Troops were sent to arrest her and bring her to prison, but on arrival the soldiers found that they were unable to lift or even move her. It was the power of the Lord. That or a few too many Cinnabons, no one really knows for sure. But the upshot was that the Roman guards killed her on the spot and Lucy became a martyr. Ever since she’s been venerated as the saint of “light”, her name meaning that very thing (lux) in Latin. It’s because of her association with light that St. Lucy is also a the patron saint of the blind.

Of course her story evolved over time. The very old tales of the saints lives tended to do that. By the Renaissance it had evolved such that the guards gouged her eyes out as a punishment before they killed her. Again no one can say whether this really happened, but it seems likely that it was an embellishment to underscore her special role for the blind. Indeed many Renaissance paintings of her depict her holding a tray with a pair of eyes on it, presumably her own, though she’s usually pictured with another set in her head. The portraits would have been pretty gruesome looking without them, I guess.

Jokes aside, the truth is that St. Lucy is a very important saint to Christians and especially Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans. As a patron of light she’s occupies a special place in the community of saints, and indeed is one of only a very few women whose names are part of the regular Catholic mass. And while her feast day (December 13th) simply comes and goes like those of so many others here in North America, in Scandinavia it’s a very big deal. Any idea why a saint of light would be venerated so widely in northern Christian countries in the wintertime? More on that in the next post.

5 thoughts on “Who was St. Lucia (Lucy)?”

  1. I’m a long time saint watcher. There’s a good book titled, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living which has lots of good information about various saints and feast days. It even has recipes. Here’s a good one about St. Agatha. According to accounts of her death, she was tortured by having her breasts cut off. Medieval artists used to depict her holding her breasts on a plate (they look like little bells). Bakers developed a treat for her feast day called minni di virgini (nipples of the virgin) which involves pasta frolla, pastry cream, sugar icing and a cherry on top.

  2. “Nipples of the Virgin” also refers to the pastry we have come to know as Sfingi di San Giuseppe, a pastry made long before the Christian era for the celebration at the time of the Spring Equinox.

    ” In more recent times Greeks and Romans celebrated this event with the sacrifice of lambs to the sun god for his blessings to the land and to the seeds planted in the ground; to the goddess of fertility, Demeter for the Greeks or Ceres for the Romans, fritters in the form of breasts of a virgin and eggs, the symbol of birth, were offered to gain her blessings so that new life would come into their families.
    Those traditions were common among the Persians, Armenians, Jews, and Germans, who at this time of the year celebrated their own gods.
    When Christianity was accepted, many of the pagan feasts endured but were transformed into Christian holidays. ”

    That is the reason why the sfingi (also known as zeppole) specific to this holiday have the shape, the cream, and the cherry … all of which, clearly have nothing to do with the husband of that other particular virgin, the Blessed Virgin.

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