When we were travelling through Europe one December the owner of the hotel where we were staying told our little girls that if they left their shoes outside the room that night Santa Lucia would come on her donkey and leave them some gifts. In the morning they were delighted to find the shoes filled with sweets. So we brought the tradition home with us and every year the shoes still go out along with a carrot for the donkey.
In our house it’s the day we get the Christmas tree, make the gingerbread house, light lots of candles and switch on the Christmas lights.
Santa Lucia was a young girl who was martyred in the third century. She used to secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians who lived in catacombs under the city. She wore a crown of candles so that her hands were free to carry the food.
The name Lucy means light and the celebration is all about bringing light into the darkest day of the year. St Lucy Day – December 13th – coincides with the old Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year in the old Julian calendar and a time of feasting and gift giving to herald the rebirth of the sun.
The Lucy story may also have merged with the folklore of the Lussi in Northern Europe. On Lussinatten the Lussi, a female demon, was said to ride through the air with a band of trolls and evil spirits. Seeing them could bring retribution so people stayed indoors. The Lussi punished anyone found working and children who had been naughty had to be especially careful or the Lussi might come down the chimney and take them away. As a result a tradition grew up of parting all night.
In Scandinavia Santa Lucia celebrations are very popular. In Sweden a girl dressed as Lucia heads a candlelit procession of women wearing white dresses who hand out saffron buns and gingerbread biscuits.
The Lucy/Lussi traditions are a perfect fit for the current trend of all things hygge – a Danish word which roughly translates as coziness. Whatever your beliefs it’s a good time to batten down the hatches, gather round and light some candles. And don’t forget to leave your shoes out under the tree tonight…