Advent Fasts and Feasts

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Fasts and Feasts
of Advent
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Advent

A Season
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Advent Wreath:
Prayers - Customs

Meditations for
Each Week


About St. Nicholas

Gingerbread

Christmas tree
Christmas

Introduction

Christmas
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Prayers for
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Prayers for
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Prayers for
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Feast of
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By Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco
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Sweetness and Light for St. Lucy

Sheaves of wheat for the gardenSpacerDecember 13 is the feast of St. Lucy, a fourth-century Sicilian martyr revered in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, as in Italy, as Santa Lucia (pronounced loo-SEE-ah in the Scandinavian countries, loo-CHEE-ah in Italian). On this day in Swedish households around the world, the eldest daughter rises early, dons a white dress with a red sash, prepares a tray of saffron buns and coffee, and perhaps some gingersnaps as well, places a wreath of evergreens and candles atop her head, and serves breakfast to the rest of the household. The candles these days are usually electric; nonetheless, the tradition lovingly shines on as it is passed from generation to generation in Swedish and other Scandinavian communities around the world. In families having more than one daughter, the girls take turns playing the coveted role of Lucia from year to year, while the sons play the part of star boys, carrying a symbolic star of Bethlehem. Towns, schools, hospitals, and businesses throughout Sweden hold Lucia pageants to select a young woman to represent the luminous saint. In the Swedish capital of Stockholm, the city's Lucia is crowned by the writer who three days earlier was awarded that year's Nobel Prize in literature. For the holiday, it is also popular to place sheaves of wheat in the yard to feed the birds, as a symbol of caring for all of creation. [right: taking wheat to the garden for the birds]

SpacerThe breakfast buns at the center of this charming celebration are called lussekatter, or Lucia cats. In Sweden, bakeries begin selling them a couple of weeks before the 13th until Christmas. They're shaped like an ampersand, with a currant, to resemble a cat's eye, in each twist.

Spacer"Symbolizing the light of faith and the promise of the sun's return, Santa Lucia has become a Swedish icon of winter," according to Judith Pierce Rosenberg of Palo Alto, California, who maintains the swedishkitchen.com web site. "Although Lucia Day, in its modern, secular incarnation, has only been celebrated on a national scale in Sweden since the 1920s, variations of today's celebrations can be traced throughout Swedish history to the Middle Ages and beyond."

SpacerAbout a millennium ago, King Canute of Sweden declared that the Christmas season would last a month, from December 13, the feast of St. Lucy, to January 13, St. Canute's Day. The king's choice of his name day to close out the festivities seems logical enough. But no one is sure how the feast day of a modest Sicilian virgin came to capture the imagination of the Swedish people and the other Scandinavians who celebrate her feast. It is interesting to note, however that in the 11th and 12th centuries, Sicily was under the control of the Normans, descendants of the Norsemen who had converted to Christianity.

Saint LucySpacerThe patron saint of the Sicilian city of Siracusa (Syracuse), Lucia died in 304, probably during the wave of Christian persecutions during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. The daughter of wealthy pagans, Lucia converted to Christianity and vowed to remain a virgin. Tradition holds that she would bring food to the Christians who hid in the dark catacombs of Siracusa, lighting her path with a wreath of candles on her head. [illustration of Lucia, right]

SpacerDespite Lucia's wishes, her family had her betrothed to a wealthy suitor, who, when spurned, denounced her as a Christian to the Roman authorities. According to a popular account, she gouged out her own eyes to repulse her suitor. Over the ages, artists have depicted her bearing a plate with her eyeballs on top, and she is, to this day, invoked by those praying for deliverance from eye afflictions.

Spacer"Sicilians still commemorate Santa Lucia's intervention during a severe famine in 1582," wrote Carol Field in Celebrating Italy (HarperPerennial, 1990). "Food was in desperately short supply. As if by magic a flotilla filled with grain appeared in the harbor on the thirteenth of December. The people of Palermo claim the ships came to their harbor, while in Syracuse they insist the boats arrived there. People were so hungry that they couldn't even wait to grind the wheat into flour but boiled the grains immediately. To this day Sicilians honor the memory of Santa Lucia by refusing to eat anything made of wheat flour on December 13, which means forgoing pasta or bread, the usual staples of their diet." Panelle, fritters made from chickpea flour, are popularly eaten on this day, unaccompanied by their customary semolina roll.  In Sicilian Feasts (Hippocrene Books, 2003), Giovanna Bellia La Marca, a native of Ragusa, Sicily, writes that "sweet and savory dishes made from whole, cooked wheat berries known as cuccia became traditional on Saint Lucy's Day." Similarly, a dish of sugared wheat kernels is popularly eaten in Syria for the feast of St. Barbara, December 4. That day marks the start of the Christmas season in the Christian communities there, as well as in Lebanon.

SpacerAccording to a northern legend, during a famine in the early 1800s, a glowing St. Lucy arrived in Värmland, Sweden, by ship, bringing food to the starving population. There she already had come to be associated with light and hope, for the passage of her feast previously coincided with the natural lengthening of the days.

SpacerUnder the Julian calendar, before the reforms of Pope Gregory XIII, explained Rosenberg, "Lucia Day fell on the longest night of the year, a time when spirits were thought to roam the earth. This was especially true in the far north, where some people thought of Lucia not as a saint, but rather a variation on the devil, Lucifer." The fallen archangel's name also comes from the Latin word for light, and means "light bearing."

Spacer"The lussekatter do look a bit like cats, but they were earlier called devil's cats," noted Rosenberg. Saffron, which is not a typical Swedish ingredient, distinguishes these treats from other Scandinavian breads. In Roman times, Sicily exported not only saints, but also saffron, whose golden hue evoked the returning sunshine. "The saffron buns have a pagan antecedent, as the Vikings used to offer bread shaped like the sun to their deities during the winter solstice," according to Rosenberg.

SpacerPepparkakor, Swedish gingersnaps (literally "pepper cakes") traditionally served at Christmas, are also made for the feast of St. Lucy. "The first pepparkakor were honey cakes, flavored with pepper and other spices, such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and anise, and were imported from German monks beginning in the 1300s," explained Rosenberg. The treats are often accompanied by glögg, or wine heated with spices.

Advent Food for Thought

SpacerIn the Catholic faith, Advent is a season of anticipation of the coming light brought not by the sun, but by the Son of God, the source of all light. In joyful expectation of that arrival, it is only natural for people to seek out the companionship of others, to offer hospitality to others through food.

Spacer"Eating together involves more than just appeasing hunger," wrote Sara Covin Juengst in Breaking Bread: The Spiritual Significance of Food (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992). "It is an activity that includes sharing, celebration, learning from one another, and providing for the helpless, a ritual that brings comfort, satisfaction, pleasure, creativity, sustenance, nurture, appreciation, and healing. It satisfies many levels of human needs."

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