The Festa di Santa Lucia in Syracuse


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The third century AD 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 AD (though the date is disputed), and then, in 251 AD, Sant'Agata of Catania suffered the same terrible fate.

In around 300 AD, 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, however, 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 AD.

Lucia's name, which derives from lux (the Latin for light), takes on particular significance in Scandinavian countries.

Santa Lucia is much revered in her home town of Syracuse. 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.

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 day, a ship carrying wheat finally docked at the port of Palermo. The starving population were 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 specialities, such as cuccia, made from whole wheat grain. All in all a good excuse for indulging in arancine and risotto!

Santa Lucia’s fame spread far and wide, from the Philippines to the Caribbean. Her name, which derives from lux (the Latin for light), takes on particular significance in Sweden, Norway and other Scandinavian countries, where, in defiance of the seemingly interminable winter darkness, girls dress in white, hold candles, and sing hymns in Santa Lucia’s honour.

Viva Santa Lucia!

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