Santa Lucia, il giorno piu corto che ci sia!
“Santa Lucia, il giorno piu’ corto che ci sia!” translates to “Santa Lucia, the shortest day of the year.” Every Italian child knows this saying even though very few know why the 13th of December is popularly known as the shortest day of the year. If you grew up in Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona or Trentino you know that the blind Santa Lucia brings gifts. You leave a bag of oats for her mule and you write her letters. You know that that Santa Lucia is an established Italian Holiday tradition. No one really knows why in these areas Santa Lucia replaced Gesu’ Bambino for Christmas. They just know she does. Children believe in Santa Lucia just as children in other parts of the world believe in Santa Claus or the Baby Jesus.
The historic details of the martyrdom of Santa Lucia are too graphic for this blog. Let’s just say that the story line is similar to the Kevin Costner and Anthony Quinn film Revenge, filled with graphic torture that would make the Halloween Horror film Texas Chainsaw Massacre seem like Sunday morning cartoons. To bring it into context let’s just say in 203 AD, before Christianity became the religion of State for the Roman Empire, a young, rich girl was promised in marriage to a non Christian. She did not want to marry him. She went to the church of Sant’Agatha and promised chastity if her mother was cured of an illness.
Upon her arrival home, she began selling the family estate, donating the money to the poor. The Fiancée realized what she was doing and had her arrested. In those times they did some pretty bad things to people. During her tortures she plucks her eyes out. When she is made a Saint she is the protector of the blind and generally all things having to do with light.
In Siracusa, Sicily, her birth town, her day is remembered and celebrated with bonfires burning late into the night. Before the Catholic Church established its official calendar this celebration took place on the December 21, the winter solstice. Thus, the popular saying the shortest day of the year is based on the original celebration. The fires were part of pre Christian celebrations to overcome the most delicate day of the year as the days begin to lengthen. As Christianity became more powerful the pagan celebrations were tied to Christian celebrations. Even after the church changed Santa Lucia from the 21rst to the 13th the popular saying remained.
Still, what does all this have to do with gifts, mules and Christmas? Why is only in certain areas of Italy? Why does Santa Lucia bring gifts in Northern Italy and not in Sicily, where she is from? As all things the modern festivities are tied to real events. They are a way to remember events and lessons learned. They are culture, they are history and they are moderation. The children and most adults of Bergamo cannot tell you why Santa Lucia brings gifts but they do know it is a time of thanksgiving, a time of charity and compassion.
Most scholars, although there is not an official version, believe that during the Era dei Comuni, from 1000 to 1500 AD, in what was known as Longobardia, or the land of the Longo Bardi, Bergamo and Brescia were in a long and horrific war with Milan. The war brought incredible poverty and one year a few wealthy families from Milan, the stronger of the two parts, distributed, during the night of Santa Lucia, food and clothing to the devastated cities of Bergamo and Brescia. They came in carts, pulled by donkeys because the cities were located high on the hills. This act of compassion between two feuding parties is remembered today, 1000 years later.
If you have the opportunity to visit the Pianura Padana during the period of Santa Lucia, keep a small bag of oats with you at all times. Who knows, the blind lady in a white dress, sitting on a cart pulled by a donkey may just have something for you and you would not want to let her donkey go on with an empty stomach.
Tags: Santa Lucia Lombardia Italian Holidays Italian Christmas Bergamo Longobardi Art and Culture Renaissance Travel Italy