Travel Notes blog
The Festa di Santa Lucia in Syracuse
by Max Lane
3 min read

The Festa di Santa Lucia in Syracuse

The Festa di Santa Lucia in Syracuse
The story behind The Festa di Santa Lucia in Syracuse, known as the Festival of Light, and now a religious celebratory tradition around the world.
Table of contents

The third century CE was a tough one for Christians. The persecutions of Emperors Septimus Severus and Decius were quickly followed by those of Diocletian. Anyone who openly professed or demonstrated their Christian faith was in trouble, especially, so it would seem, if you were young, female, devout, and Sicilian. First Santa Cecilia was martyred in Sicily in 235 (though the date is disputed), and then, in 251, Sant'Agata of Catania suffered the same terrible fate.


The story of Santa Lucia

In around 300, a young lady called Lucia made a pilgrimage from Syracuse to Catania to pray at the tomb of Sant’Agata. Agata subsequently appeared to Lucia in a dream, urging her to give up all her worldly possessions and to entrust her virginity to Christ. This Lucia did, much to the fury of her husband-to-be, who denounced her to the Roman governor of Syracuse, Paschasius.

Lucia refused to renounce her faith and was summarily sentenced to death. At this point, her hagiography becomes muddled: some say that the soldiers sent to arrest her were unable to move her, even with the help of a team of oxen; others report that the pyre on which she was to be burnt failed to light; most seem to agree that her eyes were gouged out during her torture.

It is this last part of her story that has most inspired her iconography and she is often depicted carrying her eyes on a plate. Eventually, Lucia was beheaded in 304.

img: local areas/Siracusa/1000/TTT_Sicily_Siracusa_NOV17%207.jpg

Santa Lucia in Syracuse

Santa Lucia is much revered in her hometown of Syracuse Sicily. There are two churches dedicated to her, one of which stands in a prime position on Piazza Duomo. On her Saint’s Day, 13th December, her statue is paraded through the streets of Ortigia, followed by thousands of well-wishers, who turn out to pay their respects. Once Santa Lucia has been safely returned to her church, the whole town celebrates with music, fireworks and feasting.

img: local areas/Siracusa/MAY18/1000/TTT_Sicily_Ortigia_MAY18_4.jpg

Palermo too pays homage to Santa Lucia in memory of one of her miracles. In 1646, the wheat harvest failed, and Sicily was gripped by a terrible famine. All seemed lost until, on Santa Lucia’s feast day, a ship carrying wheat finally docked at the port of Palermo.   

The starving population was handed rations of grain but, too hungry to waste time transforming the grain into flour, they cooked it whole. A new tradition was born and every year on 13th December, Palermitani renounce all flour-based food (pasta, bread, biscuits, and cakes) and eat only rice-based dishes or traditional specialties, such as cuccia, made from whole wheat grain. All in all, the event is a good excuse for indulging in arancine and risotto!

The festival of Santa Lucia around the world

Santa Lucia’s fame spread far and wide beyond Sicily, from the Philippines to the Caribbean. Her name, which derives from lux (the Latin for light), has particular significance in Scandinavian countries, where, on 13th December, in defiance of the seemingly interminable winter darkness, young girls dress in a white gown, hold candles, and sing hymns in Santa Lucia’s honour.

Viva Santa Lucia!

Villas in and around Syracuse.