La Festa di Santa Lucia (December 13)
In the dark of December parts of Italy light up to celebrate a saint whose name derives from the Latin lux or lucis for light (luce in Italian).
Lucia was a young girl who lived in Syracuse on the island of Sicily in the third century. According to various legends, this saintly virgin would wear a wreath of candles as she carried food to Christians hiding in underground tunnels. When a suitor claimed to be captivated by her eyes, Lucia plucked them out and had them sent to him on a platter. (In another version, she was blinded and miraculously cured.)
Denounced as a Christian, Lucia was ordered to work in a brothel by Roman authorities. She refused to go, and nothing—not even a fire set under her feet—could get her to budge. One of her persecutors ultimately killed her by stabbing her in the throat.
The patron saint of sight, Lucia is often portrayed holding a plate with a pair of eyes on it. As a way of tasting the enlightenment she brings, Italians eat “gli occhi (the eyes) di Santa Lucia” usually made from bread or biscotti. The same phrase also refers to shells shaped like an eye that bring good luck if found on a beach.
Santa Lucia gained greater fame in 1582, when famine struck Syracuse. On December 13 a boat filled with grain appeared in the harbor. Rather than processing the grain into flour, the starving people simply boiled and ate it.
Sicilians honor the memory of Santa Lucia by lighting bonfires and abstaining from anything made of wheat flour on December 13. They traditionally prepare cuccìa (which rhymes with Lucia), a dessert made of whole wheat berries, cooked in water and mixed with sweetened ricotta flavored with candied orange bits and shaved chocolate.
Missionaries and mariners carried the legend ot Santa Lucia to Sweden, where she is credited with again saving a town from famine by sending a boat filled with food. At its helm was a woman dressed in white with a glow above her head.
According to tradition, in some parts of northeastern Italy, including the cities of Bergamo, Cremona and Verona, Santa Lucia rides a flying donkey (asino volante) to bring gifts (regali) to good children and coal (carbone) to bad ones. To make sure she stops, youngsters leave out a snack for Lucia and carrots and hay for her donkey. However, they are warned never to try to catch a glimpse of her. If they do, she may throw ashes (cenere) in their eyes and temporarily blind them.
The phrase “Santa Lucia” is famous for a different reason in Italy —as a traditional Neapolitan song written in praise of the picturesque waterfront district, Borgo Santa Lucia, on the bay of Naples. In 1849 Santa Lucia became the first Neapolitan song to be given Italian lyrics and sung as a barcarola (gondolier's song) in the early stages of the Risorgimento, the fight for the unification of Italy.
Enrico Caruso, the great Neapolitan opera singer, recorded the most famous 20th-century version, but everyone from Elvis Presley to Luciano Pavarotti has covered this iconic tune. Click here for Andrea Bocelli's rendition.
Here are the lyrics to the opening verses in Italian and English:
Sul mare luccica
Placida è l'onda
Prospero è il vento
Over the sea
shines a silver star.
Placid is the wave.
Fair is the wind.
my swift little boat,
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA, My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.