The One True Light
There is a Scandinavian tradition around Christmastime called St. Lucia Day. On December 13 in homes in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland, the eldest daughter dons a white robe, red sash, and beautiful crown of holly and greenery, lit by seven candles. She wakes the rest of the family with a special breakfast of pastries and gingerbread cookies. This is meant to bring hope and light during a dark part of the year.
It is somewhat unclear how a Sicilian saint like Lucia became such a key part of Christmas traditions in Scandinavia. However, there is a legend that she miraculously appeared in a famine-struck province of Sweden to bring food to starving people. Perhaps that is where the tradition began.
It is believed that Lucia was born to a wealthy Sicilian family around the year 283 AD. Her father was Roman and died when Lucia was a child, and her mother was left to raise her children alone. Her mother suffered from poor health, so Lucia prayed to St. Agatha, a recently martyred saint who was credited with many miraculous healings. Through Lucia’s prayer, her mother was cured, and this led Lucia to become a Christian.
As you may know, the first centuries after Jesus’s death on the cross were dangerous times for those who believed in him. To openly proclaim a Christian faith was almost a guarantee of martyrdom. Because it was so dangerous to be a Christian, Lucia practiced her faith quietly, believing she could do more for others by remaining a silent witness.
Many Christians went underground—literally—to avoid being killed. They hid in caves, caverns, and tunnels, suffering from great poverty, illness, and hunger. Lucia would bring food to the starving Christians, her way lit by a wreath of candles on her head.
Lucia was betrothed against her will to a young pagan man who was in love with both her and her family’s wealth. She could only postpone the marriage for so long before this young man became adamant that she allow the ceremony to take place. In an act of defiance, she used her dowry money to buy food and clothing for the poor. Her fiancé, who was in a rage over her behavior, informed city officials that Lucia was a Christian. When Lucia proudly proclaimed her faith, several unsuccessful attempts at punishing Lucia were made before she was finally put to death.
Each December 13, as the eldest daughter in many Scandinavian households finds her way through the halls of her home to wake and feed her family, her way lit only by a wreath of candles upon her head, Lucia’s legacy of bringing light and hope into a dark world continues.
In the Gospel of John that we read Christmas morning during the Mass of the Nativity of the Lord, John repeatedly refers to the “light.” Christ is the one true light who brings us hope and nourishment. During this month of December, as you prepare for the birth of our Lord, I encourage you to be like St. Lucia, following Christ’s example by bringing light to those who are suffering. To do so is truly doing Christ’s work. Merry Christmas!