St. Lucia Day

Holidailies 2004December 13, 2004

Today is St. Lucia Day, a feast day celebrated primarily in Sweden. A Wikipedia page has a good overview of the history of this fourth century Italian saint and how her name came to be associated with the observance of the start of winter. In one version of the saint’s life, Lucy is portrayed as a young woman from a prosperous family who converted to Christianity and then refused marriage to a pagan suitor. Because she refused to give up “the incorruptible treasure of her virginity” (a phrase known to Catholic schoolgirls thoughout the twentieth century), she was martyred by having her eyes plucked out and then her neck pierced by a sword. She is often depicted holding a plate with her eyes on it. More delicate renditions show her holding something like a small jewelry box. (I once thought that’s where she kept the incorruptible treasure.)

I came to know about Lucia Day at about the age of ten. A family friend had given me a book put out by UNICEF which showed children from member countries in some native garb and a short essay about their culture. The page about Sweden explained the custom of the oldest girl in a family dressed as the Lussibruden (the Lucy bride) in a white gown and red sash and wearing a crown of lighted candles on her head. She serves her parents a breakfast of cardamom rolls and coffee, and everyone celebrates that the darkness of winter is at its depth and the sun will now begin its journey back to summer. (In the old Julian calendar the solstice occurred on December 13.)

This spectacle captured my imagination and it gradually became part of my Christmas mythology. The year that Lynn was born, a woman named Pleasant Rowland founded a company that produced dolls featuring American girls from a number of immigrant cultures. One of them was Kirsten, a 19th-century Swedish girl. When Lynn was about four I bought the Kirsten doll and her St. Lucia Day paraphernalia. I also bought the girl-sized crown and made a white dress and sash for Lynn.

Lynn as the Lussibruden

Above you see a picture of Lynn at 5 (1990) serving the cardamom rolls at my first holiday open house. (The shoes had been used a year earlier as part of her Dorothy of Oz costume.) I got her decked out like this for another few years, until she learned that a particular classmate would be accompanying his parents to the party and she said, “I’m not wearing that crown any more.” Now I place it on the table along with the Lucia-outfitted Kirsten doll and a heaping tray of the S-shaped cardamom rolls. That table also features the Three Favorite Cookies of my childhood, corn-flake cherry drops, Toll House cookies the way my mother made them (with all ingredients doubled except the chocolate, to save money), and sand tarts.

There have been times in my life when December was filled with darkness. Not only have I from time to time had personal sorrows at this season, I also am subject to Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that occurs at the onset of the dark days and can persist until spring. Some years the effects have been pronounced, even when conditions in my life were not complicating things. This is not one of them.

And so I take this Saint Lucia day to celebrate all the light that is in my life, and I leave my readers with words from one of my favorite modern Advent songs:

Rejoice, rejoice, take heart in the night, though dark the winter and cheerless.
The rising sun shall crown you with light, be strong and loving and fearless.
Love be our song and love our prayer and love be our endless story.
May God fill every day we share and bring us at last into glory.

Happy St. Lucia Day.

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