It’s been a beautiful Saint Lucia Day, and just my kind of happy: I’ve been in the kitchen since early morning, baking cookies and wrapping homemade caramels for Christmas gifts, accompanied by various cats vying for the chairs closest to the fire and an Australian shepherd only too willing to clear up the bits of fallen hazelnuts from under the table. It’s four-thirty now, time for tea and a bit of a pause before evening falls and barn chores summon, and I’m savoring the remnants of this gloomy day, glowery with misty showers and spits of earnest rain. A fog has been gathering since about three o’clock, spilling down the terraces of the western pasture and creeping stealthily about the house, and I’m feeling the intense comfort of the warmth within, not to mention the blessing of a whole day hearthside. The darkness will fall soon–sooner each afternoon–but there are candles to light against the night, and true words to kindle our souls.
I was reading this morning in the book of John about the true Light that has come into the world–some translations say that the darkness cannot comprehend it; others say it has not overcome it. Both are true, and both have profound implications on the nature of darkness: it cannot grasp a Love so divine, and it cannot stop it. The daybreak of Advent is only the beginning–and the Light gets the final word.
That’s why I’m so enchanted with the tradition of Saint Lucy’s Day, or the Feast Day of Saint Lucia, as its known in Scandinavian regions. Before the Gregorian calendar was set, the Winter Solstice was originally observed on December 13th, so it’s no coincidence that a saint’s day associated with the triumph of light over darkness is still celebrated on this date. All over Europe–and even in parts of America, as Old World traditions have migrated to the New–young girls dressed in white and crowned with wreaths of lit tapers woke their families at dawn, bearing trays of Christmas treats and mugs of hot coffee and cocoa to celebrate the turning of the tide and the return of the light. Such a radiant incarnation of all that we believe this season represents, all that John’s gospel tells us is astonishingly true: the Light shines in the darkness. And for all its vain show of upperhandedness, the darkness must give way.
The tradition of Saint Lucia images a reality that flies in the face of the seemings. And isn’t that just what all of our Christmas traditions have the potential to do–to articulate something vital and important and true out of the raw materials of our life? All this fuss and bother and preparation stands in for a celebration we can only grasp at this side of heaven. But, oh, how sweet these clutches are, laced with cinnamon and ginger, bright with blood-red berries, tender with candlelight.
When I was 14, I was so enamored with Saint Lucy I decided to enact my own version of her fabled feast day. Legend has it that she wore candles on her head so that her hands would be free to distribute more bounty to the needy. Well, if I was going to do this thing, I was going to do it right, so I spent forever fashioning a grapevine wreath to which I laboriously affixed four candle stubs anchored with green floral tape. And when the time came, I donned an old nightgown of my mother’s, tied a red sash around my waist, and lit my wreath, presenting my luminous self to the rest of the family with a bountiful tray of Swiss Miss and Christmas cookies. I fully anticipated their looks of surprise and admiration–but it was immediately clear that the look on my mother’s face was less admiration and more blanched horror.
“Ah, Lanier, honey,” she gasped, interrupting my rendition of O Little Town of Bethlehem as I distributed the treats, “why don’t we just blow out those candles before we go any further…”
A hot trickle of wax searing into my scalp made me amenable to the suggestion, but I’ll admit, I was somewhat miffed at the lack of imagination on her part. Later that day, however, when I was bent over the kitchen sink chipping wax out of my hair, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that life had its rare moments when common sense actually trumped romance.
But not many of them.
My young friends in Australia portrayed a beautiful (and more sensible!) Lucy Day of their own this year. These girls are a prime example of the fact that romance has not utterly fled from this tired old world of ours.
*All photographs by the lovely Lucia Queens featured in this post. 🙂