Before Pope Gregory tweaked the Julian calendar and caused a great deal of confusion, 13 December was celebrated as the winter solstice in Scandinavia. The poem by the late 16th century English writer, John Donne, “A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day” shows that Protestant countries were still celebrating Midwinter in the middle of December in his day. When the calendar shifted, the solstice fell a week closer to the end of the month and the end of the secular year. But St Lucy kept her day in the middle of the month because… reasons.
If you want a great sample of logical contortion, try to tease out the historic dates of the winter holidays. The official Catholic doctrine is that the 25th was chosen as Christmas because this falls nine months after March 25th, Lady Day, which was the day that the vernal equinox was observed in the Julian calendar. The vernal equinox was supposed to be the day the world was created and therefore the logical day for the conception of Jesus. This meant that December 25th was the date of Jesus’ birth, if one ignores the little detail that human gestation is not nine calendar months, but 280 days or ten moon cycles. (But then, Mary was different…)
There are more threads to this tangled story. The birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun or Mithras, the popular cult deity of the Roman military, was tied to the solstice. Of course, being the sun. There is one Late Roman era Christian calendar that mentions games celebrating the birth of an “Invictus” on the 25th (or rather on the 8th day before the Kalends of January, which was December 25th in the Julian calendar). This calendar notation was recorded in the year 354, not quite twenty years after Constantine’s new Roman Church fixed the birth of Christ to the 25th. This seems to indicate that the birthdate of Jesus may have had less to do with Lady Day and human gestation than with this commonly celebrated birthday of Mithras. Constantine was, after all, a Roman military man. Moreover, one of the Church’s explicit goals in setting Christmas to the solstice was to subdue the midwinter revels. So Constantine had a win-win. He could honor his old god and his new on the same day, the midwinter solstice.
But the solstice isn’t fixed on our calendars, not even Gregory’s which was created specifically for the purpose of fixing solar events and the seasons in the secular year. There was so much drift by Gregory’s day that the actual solstice was in the middle of December. Gregory’s system comes close to permanently hanging the secular calendar on the sun’s year, but there is still a bit of wobble. And the fix did not move the solstice back to the Roman era date range. We have our solstice around the 21st. The Romans had theirs around the 25th, and Christmas is stuck there regardless of the actual solstice. (Why Christmas doesn’t move like Easter is beyond my ken…)
The solstice was definitely moving in the first millennia and a half of the Christian era. As I said, it fell about ten days earlier than Roman times by the time Gregory and John Donne were alive. And the solstice never lost its centrality in much of Europe, particularly the North where it is impossible to ignore. It gets very dark around midwinter. The day that the day’s length starts increasing again is, understandably, a day to celebrate no matter your deities or their birthdays. The 13th became associated with the birth of the light several centuries before Gregory forcibly removed that association. And St Lucy was assigned that day.
But Gregory couldn’t shift Lucy. Which is interesting because that is very like one of her reported miracles. Her persecutors tried to force her into a brothel, but they could not physically move her. She was fixed to the floor of her home. She couldn’t be moved. For reasons that don’t have anything to do with her life or death, her day is still the 13th of December, the old solstice and the birth of the light. Which is also interesting because that is actually her name — “light”. And indeed, Lucy is said to bring the light. The days grow longer after St Lucy’s Day.
Now, for the really intriguing twist. Lucy, Lucia, is particularly honored in Scandinavian countries even though she is a rather minor saint from Italy (where she is also honored on the 13th). Lucy is called Lucia in both places, but her name is homonymic with another midwinter being native to the North. The Lussi (whose name also means “light” or “bright one”) may have been a regional deity in Scandinavia who, much like St Nick, had a dual nature. She would reward good children and industrious workers, but she would reign misery down on those who were offensive or lazy. She even carried bad kids off in a sack. She travelled with gnomes and trolls, the red-hatted nisse and tomte that are having a certain renaissance in our holiday decorations these days, but who were not at all cute and cuddly when Lussi was wandering the winter nights.
However, she is venerated because she cared for those in need. She is particularly associated with feeding the hungry. She even froze lakes to bring food to stranded islanders. The Roman Lucia is also associated with feeding the hungry. She carried so much food to persecuted Christians down in the dark catacombs that she had to put candles on her head so as to light her way and yet free keep her hands free. But then, this candle crown tale may be explaining the Lussi, Lucia, the light bringer — she radiated light, like a halo of dawn, as she smilingly delivered sustenance to those in need.
Today, there are parties and processions in honor of Santa Lucia. The candles Lucy wore into the catacombs are still worn by young girls as they come singing carols, along with a train of girls and boys dressed as angels and nisse (or gingerbread men) all in white. Lucia also visits the home. It is traditional for the eldest daughter to wear a crown of lighted candles to bring St Lucia’s buns to her parents. Lucy’s Day heralds the return of the light, the lengthening of the days, and therefore the coming growing season. So it is also traditional to sow a small amount of wheat on St Lucy’s Day so that there will be green shoots by Christmas, new life and food in the depths of winter dark. Holiday homes are adorned with wheat and straw figures and sheaves. Tiny straw versions of Lussi’s goat, the Yulbok, are often found gamboling on the Nordic Christmas tree (which is itself another pagan story coopted by the late-comers…). And of course, there are blazing candles everywhere. In fact, the traditional Advent candle wreath is almost exactly like the crown of light worn by Lucia.
St Lucy’s Day is a wonderful patchwork quilt of myth, tradition and history. Go make some saffron buns for Lucia, light some candles and sing your favorite carols. (Here is Pavarotti singing the traditional “Santa Lucia”.) And remember that the light will soon be growing again.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021