Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 13, 2015
Today, December 13th, is the feast day for Saint Lucy, or Lucia as we would know her. In the old Julian calendar, the 13th is the longest night, rather than the 21st. This morning we held our annual Santa Lucia celebration with the kids parading up behind our Santa Lucia queen while the congregation sings the song. We eat our cookies and hear a little about the legend of Lucia. We’ve been doing this since before I came here. I was curious to know if other UU congregations do this. I found a handful of announcements online from other UU congregations, but not many. This is a rather uncommon ritual.
Of course, it is not out of the blue. We have several members and former members from the Scandinavian countries. That’s the most likely reason we do the pageant as we do each year. The historical person and her events back in 304 AD were in Greece, but the Santa Lucia festivals really took root up in northern Europe.
How many of you remember Ruth Antonson coming up during Joys and Sorrows? This was during the last year or so before she died. She hated Joys and Sorrows, so that indicates how important it was for her to share the story of her husband Arvid who was not able to attend that Sunday when we’d held the Santa Lucia pageant. She told us it was his favorite service to see the kids come in wearing all white while we sang the old song. Ruth said “every year, a little tear would roll down her husband’s cheek.”
But it was not just the Antonsons who have been moved by the pageant. Back in 2012, two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we sat in the sanctuary as our children walked down the aisle singing about darkness and light. We needed that. In the face of senseless tragedy we needed to see our children, to let them know we value them and care for them.
Of course we only tell the sanitized version of the story each year. In that scripted piece, one of our youth will talk about Lucia’s desire to help the poor and to feed people. The version we read out loud each year offer a passing reference to the fact that she was killed – possibly burned at the stake – for religious reasons. The details of the legend are rather more gruesome than that, to the point that some have wondered why we celebrate this story.
According to the more colorful versions of the Lucia legend, the young girl had dedicated herself to God taking a vow of virginity and of poverty. She desperately wanted to give her dowry away to the poor. When her betrothed learned of her plan, he denounced her. This appears to have been a big deal because the governor’s response was to have her forcibly defiled in a brothel and then put to death. The Christian version of her martyrdom claims they could not drag her away to the brothel, even when they hitched a team of oxen to her they could not budge her. They heaped wood around her and tried to burn her at the stake, but the fire would not touch her. Finally they killed her with their swords.
In later medieval accounts of the legend, her eyes were gouged out prior to her execution. Her eyes became sort of her trademark. In much of the artwork about her, there is an extra pair of eyes depicted in a bowl she is carrying or her eyes are closed in the most subtle pieces. She is the patron saint of the blind and people with eye-related trouble. Thus, the cookies refer to eyes.
The version we tell says the cookies are a nod to her cat, “whose green eyes helped her find her way in the darkness.” I scoured all the sources I could but I found no reference to a cat in any of the stories. The cookies are not the cat’s eyes. There is no cat. I did find an Icelandic story about a Christmas Cat, but there is no connection to Saint Lucia there. But Iceland’s legend of the Christmas Cat was an eye-opening introduction to a variety of gruesome and frightening tales related to Christmas.
The Christmas Cat of Iceland is a monstrous feline that will eat anyone who does not own a new shirt or coat. This legend dates back to medieval times with a rather blunt moral – work hard so you will have new clothes or the Christmas Cat will eat you. Exploring this, I uncovered several other examples around the world. In Austria, they is a Krampus Parade in which people dress up as devils who are said to beat naughty children with branches. In Greece, they have stories about Kallikantzaroi who are evil goblins believed to dwell underground but come to the surface during the twelve days of Christmas to cause trouble. In South Africa, children are told the story of boy who ate the Christmas cookies his grandmother left out for Santa. In her rage, she killed the boy. His ghost still haunts naughty kids during the season
I have no wish to subject our children to frightening legends just to scare them into being good for the holidays. I am far too much of a Universalist to good down that road now. I believe in a version of God who loves us and lures us toward the good rather than a God of rules and judgement who has to threaten people to get them to be good. So the myths and stories that capture my allegiance are the ones that don’t rely on fear to motivate behavior.
All of these stories are stories told in the service of something important. The Christmas Cat will eat you if you don’t have new clothes. The message is to promote hard work, or to value basic material possessions, or perhaps to be guarded around cats. The Krampus devils and the Kallikantsaroi goblins come out during the Christmas time to cause trouble. The message is to be wary of evil temptations even during the holy and festive times of the year.
So what are the messages of the Santa Lucia story? Certainly the old legend is a message about piety and fidelity to Jesus, all of the martyr stories carry that message – when trouble crowds around your door, stay true to your faith even unto death. But the martyr message has complications in our society today. Our government does not currently murder people for their religion, as happened to Lucia in Greece seventeen hundred years ago. Being founded on religious tolerance and freedom makes it unlikely that our government will ever go to that extreme, although the fresh round of Islamophobia does give one pause.
Perhaps the message of this old legend is not found in the oldest version of the story. It was over a thousand years after her death that Scandinavian cultures took hold of the story and made it their own. The story of a young girl dressed in white with lights in her hair holds some of the symbolic connections to Saint Lucia, but not much. Bringing food to the elders in the family has more to do with Swedish and Norwegian culture than anything going on in Greece in 300 AD when Lucia was killed. Emperor Constantine in Rome was about to descend on Greece. Constantine, you may recall, is the one who turned Christianity from a rebellious group of martyrs and saints into a state-sanctioned, colonizing power. Carrying cookies and coffee with candles in your hair has nothing to do with the original Lucia.
But perhaps the original story changed over the centuries because the society needed a different message. The story we celebrate of Santa Lucia is not the one about the martyred saint. We celebrate the story of the child with lights in her hair bringing food to people. The message shows us the importance of children and the honoring of elders in the family. It is a message also about bringing light at the darkest time of the year. We always need this solstice message of light returning. We’ve barely had winter yet here in Binghamton – a few cold days but not many. Yet we always need the story of light returning.
The legend of Santa Lucia is rife with tragic and gruesome details. But it serves our community as a story of family and community and the returning of the light because that’s the part we lift up and tell. We are meaning makers, we make it. We decide what values to carry forward and what the stories mean. So the cookies are cat’s eyes. The lights in her hair are the key feature of the story. It is all about family and community.
Consider how it works for the Hanukkah story. It was originally about a great military victory. The lighting of the lamp was about re-consecrating the temple, but the great part was the military victory. But over time, lighting the candles became the important thing – even if you did not know the story of the victory or why the lights were needed in the first place.
But even if you have no memories
of beloved elders chanting a guttural holy tongue
while holding the shamash aloft at dusk,
the menorah compels us all to consider
how centuries change stories,
how celebrations reflect as much as preserve,
and how we shape consecration of our own rituals.
We can all remember
that it takes only a candle
to light the way for each other
-Lori Rottenberg “The Shamash is the tall one”
We all need the light that shines out, the story that leads us higher, and the community of support and memory that keeps us whole. So that is the version of the story we tell. And here we are, most of us not Swedish yet we enact a beloved Scandinavian story; most of us not Jewish yet we light the Menorah and honor the tradition; most of us not Christian yet we speak of the advent of Jesus and of Love. We are Unitarian Universalists, gathered in diversity to seek peace and warmth and light in a world filled with danger and fear. We tell stories of victory and love despite the darkness that grows. Because those are the stories we need filling our world.
Welcome to the season of lights, may you find the stories you need to carry you through the darkness, and may you find the faith to see the beauty of the dark as well as the glory of the light.
In a world without end, May it be so.