Italy is a country standing on fairly solid catholic roots, but in the last thirty years or so, many foreign concepts and traditions have weedled their way into daily life; halloween, for example, which up until ten years ago was totally unheard of and has nothing to do with Italian folklore, suddenly became the IN thing to do, and a big business has now developed around this “alien” festivity. Italy does have the tendency to consider anything foreign as glamorous, and even when it comes to Christmas, there is a medley of pagan and religious symbolism going on, unquestionably accepted by all.
In practically every house you will find a christmas tree, in any shape and colour, but very few stop to ask themselves what the tree represents. In ancient times, the image of the tree was present in many pagan customs and rites; the druids – celtic priests – having observed that evergreens never lost their vigour even throughout the winter season, considered them as symbols of long life, and began to honour and worship them during the winter solstice. Current-day Christmas falls almost precisely in the same period in which the winter solstice was historically celebrated, and on December the 25th, the “new-born” sun was worshipped as a fresh beginning. From that point onwards in fact, days grow longer, and move towards springtime and a new life.
So here we have an example of non-catholic yet universally adopted tradition. But most of the other customs or holidays are related to the national creed, the first of which, in the period leading up to christmas, is “The Immaculate Conception”, celebrated on the 8th of December. This is considered as one of the most important festivities, due to the fact that over 90% of Italians are Catholics, and encourages bonding between family and friends. It is generally considered a non-working day, for those who are lucky enough to have this opportunity.
The night between the 13th and 14th of December is a magical moment, dedicated to children; while they are in the land of slumber, Santa Lucia comes to all good children with her little donkey, and leaves presents for them. Nobody ever sees her, but the messy saucer of milk and the biscuit crumbs on the floor are sure proof that she and her little friend had visited. All this sounds very familiar, but Italian children are rather lucky in that, if their parents can afford it, they later recieve gifts from Santa Claus too! But who is – or rather was – “Santa Lucia”?
Her story goes back to the IV century, in Siracusa, Sicily. Lucia was a young woman from a well-to-do family, betrothed to a fellow townsman and destined to become a good wife and mother. Her own mother fell very ill, so Lucia went to Catania to pray over Saint Agata’s tomb, begging for her mother to recover. Apparently the saint appeared to her, asking her to devote her life to the poor and weak, and predicting Lucia’s destiny as a martyr. When the young woman returned to Siracusa, she found her mother fully recovered, therefore, remembering Saint Agata’s words, she made the decision to break off the engagement, go mingle with the poor in the catacombs with a lamp fixed to her head, and donate all her dowry to them. Lucia’s fiancé did not understand and became enraged at the humiliation brought upon him. He took his terrible revenge by reporting what should have been his future bride to the authorities, denouncing her christian faith. These were the years of christian persecution, under the rule of Emperor Diocleziano.
Lucia confessed and confirmed her faith, unshakeable even during torture, and declared that her great strength came not from her body, but from her spirit. When the moment came to take her away, her body took on a miraculous strength and could not be removed either by men, oxen nor boiling pitch. Lucia was therefore condemned to death. Before dying, she recieved the holy comunion, and predicted the imminent passing of Diocleziano and the end of persecution against christians. Both of these circumstances came about within a few years.
Story to be continued in the next article.