A-Z of Saints: Lucy

St Lucy is the only saint celebrated by Lutherans in Scandinavia. Here is her story.

As with many saints, we know more of Lucy or Lucia from legend than life. According to tradition, she was born to a rich family of noble Christian descent, Greek on her mother’s side and Roman on her father’s, in Syracuse around 283 AD. Her father died when she was young, and her mother Eutychia was keen to see her married off – in this case to a young pagan.

Lucy knew from an early age that she wished only to be a bride of Christ, and vowed to maintain her virginity, as well as devoting her worldy goods to the poor.

Lucy prayed at the tomb of St Agatha in Catania, 50 miles from Syracuse, that her mother might be dissuaded from forcing her to marry, and the story goes that St Agatha interceded and cured Eutychia of a debilitating haemorrhage. This gave Lucy the leverage to persuade her mother to back off, and indeed to distribute much of her own riches to the needy.

This generosity alas came to the attention of Lucy’s betrothed, who was jealous and unmotivated by Christian charity. In 303 he reported her – during a period of persecution of Christians by the emperor Diocletian – to Paschasius, the governor of Sicily. She was sentenced to forced prostitution, but the guards sent were unable to move her, even with oxen. They were then ordered to kill her with bundles of wood set on fire, having tortured her and gouged out her eyes, but again she miraculously prevailed – until, finally, she was stabbed to death.

As she died she foretold Paschasius’ own punishment, and the decline of Diocletian, and some accounts say her eyesight was restored (though perhaps of little use at this stage). She probably died in the year 304.

Lucy was venerated early on, and commemorated by Saints Gregory and Aldhelm, and the historian Bede. Her body is said to have lain undisturbed in Sicily for 400 years, and was then removed to Corfinium in Italy, and thence to the church of St Vincent in Metz, France, though her relics are now believed to be scattered across various locations in Europe.

Lucy’s wide range of patronage included authors, blindness, glaziers, haemorrhages, saddlers and sore throats, and she is remembered on 13 December.

In Scandinavia, her feast has become unusually important: in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland alike she is portrayed by women wearing a headdress of candles (symbolising the fire that was burnt around her), and special carols are sung – this festival of light (Lucy indeed means ‘light’), at the dark point of the year, may well have pagan origins before her. In Sweden a number of traditions are particularly well-established, and make the day almost as significant as Christmas. Various Lucine traditions persist in Italy, too, where children sometimes leave gifts out for her.

Other ‘L’ saints include:

  • The evangelist St Luke, of course – born to Greek parents in Antioch and died c74 – wrote one of the Gospels, and is remembered for being a physician, hence his patronage of doctors (but also bookbinders, goldsmiths and many others). His memorial day is 18 October.
  • St Lawrence was born in Spain and was martyred by being cooked to death on a gridiron in 258 – hence his patronage of cooks. He is also patron to the poor for his many good works to support them, and for upholding them as the “treasure of the Church”. His memorial is 10 August.