The Candle Burns at Both Ends

Today the church, especially those of Scandinavian heritage, remembers a young saint and martyr who, in memory, has a taste for sweet rolls and coffee: Saint Lucy, The Light Bearer.

Having lived sometime at the end of the third century in Sicily, Saint Lucy was a victim of the Diocletian Persecution, a purging of Christians in Roman territories. She was said to have lived a good life who had a heart for the poor. Legend goes that her mother fell gravely ill when Lucy was a young maiden, and when she recovered St. Lucy gave all of her bridal dowry to the poor in thanksgiving to God. Her would-be suitor did not like this at all, and turned Lucy in to the authorities for being a secret Christian.

As punishment Lucy was forced to work in a brothel…though she refused to work at all, which frustrated her oppressors. They took her out to the village square and built a fire around her in order to scare her into submission, but she remained unafraid. She eventually died due to these intimidation tactics, and her legend grew in the Christian communities as a brave young woman who had no fear in the face of danger.

Saint Lucy is remembered as the patron saint of the working poor. Her name literally means “light,” which makes the intimidation tactics of her oppressors ironic.

In modern practice Saint Lucy’s memory made its way far north to Scandinavia where she is highly regarded, especially as her feast day is quite near the Solstice.

Saint Lucy, or as she is known in the North, “Sankta Lucia,” is remembered by the procession of a young girl in the house wearing white with a red sash (the sign of a martyr), her head adorned with a crown of candles, bringing breakfast and a blessing to each room. These candles stand for two important symbols in Saint Lucy’s story: both the light that was used to intimidate her, and they also symbolize her eyes (the candle of the body), which prayers to Saint Lucy are reported to protect. A traditional breakfast on this day are Lussekatter, or “cat’s eye rolls” made of saffron and currants.

Oh, and if your home doesn’t have a young girl to process, have no fear. Young boys often dress in red as St. Lucy’s attendants by the name of “Star Boys.” They, too, carry on the tradition with star wands, blessing each room.

It makes sense that in the Scandinavian North around the shortest days of the year the people would seek out signs that the light would never be extinguished. Saint Lucy is one of those ancient signs; an ancient memory that humans have long utilized to remind themselves that though shadows lengthen, the light never dies.

Though the Saint Lucy practices are fun and highly tied to heritage, it is too bad that she is not remembered better as the fierce young woman of lore.

Saint Lucy is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that reminders of hope are necessary for humanity, and stories often provide those reminders.

The story of Lucy the Light Bearer, the fierce and unafraid young woman, is worth remembering.

On this day I often recite a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially as daylight is at a premium and we’re all overworking:

“My candle burns at both ends
it will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,
it gives a lovely light.”

-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

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