The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Feast of St Lucy or Santa Lucia
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days
The Feast of St Lucy is celebrated on December 13th. In the Germanic world, the Eve of St Lucy’s is renowned (or notorious) for an upsurge in spirit activity, most notably by the passage of the Wild Hunt. Witches and practitioners go out to join the Hunters, although others may hide behind locked doors and amulets.
Before the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582, the Feast of St Lucy fell on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, a day of tremendous spiritual power. Apparently the calendar change means little to the spirits because they’re still out riding around.
The festival officially commemorates St Lucy, an early virgin martyr. Lucy, a beautiful young noblewoman from Sicily, had made a vow of chastity. When her father made arrangements for her marriage, Lucy bet that if she literally removed her eyes, the chosen groom would change his mind and quickly retract his proposal. She wasn’t wrong but luckily for Lucy, God was so impressed by her determination that he stuck her eyes back in, healed them and miraculously gifted her with sight once more. St Lucy is now the matron saint who heals afflictions of the eye and who averts and removes the Evil Eye (see DICTIONARY: Evil Eye).
Today the Church acknowledges that Lucy’s hagiography is built on legend and folklore. Many believe that forbidden but formidable female deities hide behind the saint’s respectable mask.
In the Mediterranean St Lucy is identified with the Italian deity Juno Lucina, Juno the Lightbringer (see Lupercalia). However, nowhere is St Lucy more beloved than in Scandinavia where that shape-shifting witch-goddess Freya is believed to have assumed the saint’s guise. As a goddess, Freya leads the Norse warrior spirits, the Valkyries. She welcomes fallen battle heroes; half will spend joyous eternity partying in her hall, while the other half accompanies Odin. As deities of witches (or as disciples of the devil, if you prefer that perspective) Odin and Freya are among the leaders of the Wild Hunt. Freya also has dominion over love, romance, sex, and fertility. She typically manifests as a golden woman who shines like the sun. In Norway, virginal St Lucy has something of a reputation as a loose woman, even as a goblin (defined as a malevolent fairy). She even sometimes leads the Wild Hunt.
In Sweden, the Feast of St Lucy is celebrated with a beloved ritual enactment. One of a household’s young girls or women, usually either the eldest or youngest daughter, ritually embodies the saint. She rises before dawn to fix coffee and breakfast for her family. Ritual foods are served such as the pastry known as lussekatter, “Lucy’s cats,” saffron buns, cross-shaped pastries also frequently flavored with saffron (saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is a potent natural dye; it turns food and drink golden), and glogg, hot spiced wine with aquavit.
The girl dresses up as St Lucy and brings breakfast to everyone else’s bed. Intrinsic to the ritual is her crown of lit candles. The crown usually incorporates either seven or nine candles, although this varies depending upon household and region. The Santa Lucia crown may be built upon a wreath created from fresh greens, often rue, and is decorated with scarlet ribbons.
In Switzerland, St Lucy is a gift-giver; she strolls around together with Father Christmas (who may be her old partner Odin in disguise). She distributes gifts to girls, while Father Christmas gives gifts to the boys. In Swiss folklore, St Lucy is often understood to be Mrs Christmas, Santa Claus’ wife, which one imagines would have greatly distressed that young Sicilian martyr.
In Hungary, St Lucy’s Day is associated with divination. Bands of boys known as the “cacklers” or the fortune-tellers, used to proceed from house to house, singing ancient fertility songs, similar to the tradition of Yule carolers. The cacklers requested hens, geese, eggs, and blessings. The mistress of the house was somewhat obligated to welcome the singers and give them their traditional offering of dried pears as if this was done, her home was considered blessed for the year to come. If the cacklers aren’t welcomed, her clutch of chickens, however many there might be, is allegedly doomed to be reduced to one blind hen. (The curse of St Lucy’s eyes!)
Once upon a time, if someone in Hungary wished to know the identity of a village’s witches, St Lucy’s Day was the time to begin building a magical chair from nine different types of wood, put together without nails. (This spell apparently must be constructed without iron.) Known as a “Lucy Chair” one could work on it daily until Christmas when, if you hadn’t changed your mind, it would be placed at the very back of the local church. Should the maker stand upon it during Midnight Mass, the witches would be identified by the horns now revealed on top of their heads. These horns are invisible to everyone but the one with the Lucy chair, who is now in the position to expose these witches.
Of course, this was no secret ritual; on the contrary someone standing on an unusual homemade chair during Midnight Mass would be quite conspicuous. Whether he saw the witches or not, they would certainly see him and so the end of the spell instructs him to run home as quickly as possibly immediately after Mass. Hopefully he’s remembered to fill his pockets with poppy seeds which may be tossed behind him to distract the witches, who by now would be in hot pursuit. (Russian fairy tales also advise tossing poppy seeds should Baba Yaga ever be in pursuit.) Allegedly the witches will be forced to stop and pick up these sacred seeds. Once he was home, the chair must immediately be burned, which is perhaps why so few survive! (At least one, however, is on display in Budapest’s Ethnographic Museum.)
See BOTANICALS: Opium Poppy; DIVINE WITCH: Freya: Odin.