St Lucy – the Catholic goddess of midwinter

St Lucy with her eyes on a plate
Not a lot of British people know this, but December 13th is the Feast of St Lucy, a young girl who died under the Roman persecution of Christians in the 4th century.

Until a few centuries ago, under the Julian calendar that preceded the modern Gregorian one, St Lucy’s Day was also the shortest day, the darkest point of the year just before the rebirth of the sun, as celebrated by John Donne in his Nocturnal about ‘the day’s deep midnight’.

Sound familiar? The intertwining of pagan with Christian elements means that St Lucy the Catholic martyr is also the goddess of the Winter Solstice, her feastday a festival of light. (Lucy derives from lux=light)

St Lucy is celebrated in various ways in different countries, from processions of girls wearing headdresses of candles in Sweden and other Nordic countries, to the planting of Christmas wheat in Hungry and Croatia. It’s a syncretic feast that the modern Catholic tradition seems to have integrated with ease.

Facts about the historical Lucy are few, but myths abound, and they have a contemporary resonance. One version of her life puts her firmly in the tradition of virgin martyrs, telling of her torture and death as a result of her refusal to marry – a counter-cultural option taken up by a tiny minority of women. Another gory story tells of how her torturers torn her eyes out, a legend that made her the patron saint of the blind, pictured with her eyes on a plate. Then theres the tale of how Lucy smuggled herself into the catacombs of Rome to take food to the persecuted Christians hiding there. Think foodbanks, humanitarian aid!

So I like St Lucy, and the way she embodies key elements of the Christian and pagan traditions that shape the way we experience winter. And I like the richness of the myths about her, and how they provide resources for thinking about different and difficult aspects of life – misogyny, religious persecution, brutality. She’s a good example of how both Catholic and pagan traditions use human figures, whether saints or goddesses, to bring into focus qualities and experiences that might otherwise seem remote.

And I like, finally, that as I was born an hour into December 14th, my birthday* coincides with a woman who went against the orthodoxies of her society to live the life of the spirit.

This is the third in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.

*The author would like to apologise to users of Facebook who were led to believe that my birthday was on April 1st and took the trouble to send me birthday wishes. This was a joke conducted for data protection reasons.