December 13: Feast of Santa Lucia

Swedish Choir

Hadrian’s Temple, Piazza Pietra

Today, December 13, is the feast of Santa Lucia. It is a particular celebration for Scandinavians and traditionally, Santa Lucia is supposed to bring lights and sweets on the night of December 12th. The Swedish embassy here in Rome celebrated the event with its annual concert in Piazza Pietra yesterday evening. A small procession of singers wearing white robes and hats, one with a crown of candles, filed onto the stage set up in front of Hadrians temple. A very interesting location as the temple dates back to AD 145 but has been now converted into a modern building still incorporating the original Corinthian columns. Anyhow, the singers proceeded to sing typical Swedish songs and carols starting with “Santa Lucia” of Neapolitan fame. Afterwards, there was mulled wine and gingerbread cookies being given out though I didn’t hang around long enough to line up and get a taste, preferring to have a glass of grappa instead!

Santa Lucia by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, 1521

Santa Lucia was an early Christian martyr in Syracuse, Sicily in the 4th century. One legend associated with her martyrdom is that she distributed her dowry to the poor and took on a vow of chastity. Her pagan bethrothed faced with this disappointment, denounced her to the Roman Governor of Syracuse. Attempts to put her in a brothel unless she relinguished her faith, failed as she could not be physically moved, and a fire was lit so that she could be burned on the spot. Apparently, she continued to talk as she faced death whereupon, a guard thrust a dagger into her throat. Another legend has it that she helped out the Christians hiding in catacombs using a wreath of candles on her head to light her way, which might explain the Swedish candle crowns. Since her name signifies light, she became revered as the patron saint of the blind and those with eye problems. Later Christian iconography portrayed her as being blinded but given a new pair of eyes by God and one sees paintings of her holding a plate with her eyes on it. There is no lack of gory icons in the churches and one also sees Santa Agatha carrying her breasts on a plate but more about this in another time.Evidently, the Nordic races celebrated the winter equinox according to the Julian calendar and the date fell on December 13. Associated with Yuletide celebrations, the feast of Santa Lucia (since her name comes from ‘luce’ meaning light) became synonomous with lights and feasting. The feast is also celebrated in Italy but only in the north and in Sicily. In the north, Santa Lucia supposedly makes her way around on a donkey with her escort Castaldo bringing a present for good children and a piece of coal for those who were bad during the year. Children leave coffee for her, a carrot for the donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo and are not supposed to watch the delivery of gifts lest Lucia throw ashes into their eyes temporarily blinding them.

Cuccia Preparation

In Sicily, celebrations include a bonfire, fireworks and a particular type of sweet called cuccia. Sicilians believe that Santa Lucia rescued them from a famine in 1582. They had been starving when a ship arrived in the harbour on December 13 carrying wheat. People were so hungry that they didn’t make flour but soaked the wheat and ate it. Cuccia is made with ricotta, honey and boiled soaked wheat grains.

Mid-morning Coffee and Cuccia

We have a Sicilian Pasticceria nearby on Via Gregorio VII and this morning a large basin of cuccia had just been made and was ready to eat. We really enjoyed our coffee and cuccia and I could eat it frequently but unfortunately, it’s only made on December 13.

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