The Feast of Santa Lucia: A Different Italian Christmas

Dec 11, 2014

Santa Lucia

A guest post by Riccardo Cristiani

I was born in Milan in the 1970’s. Like every child in Europe, I was always looking forward to celebrating Christmas (il Natale) and getting new toys (giocattoli). One day, to my great surprise, I discovered that some of my friends and relatives living in the area of Bergamo and Cremona, not far from Milan, couldn’t care less about Santa, Babbo Natale and December 25. They were all waiting for December 13, when Santa Lucia (St. Lucy), her helper Castaldo and a donkey would bring them presents (regali) or, for naughty kids, (sweet) coal (carbone).  

An old Italian proverb declares “Santa Lucia, il giorno più corto che ci sia” (St. Lucia, the shortest day of the year). The reason is that this feast was once celebrated on December 21, the winter solstice (il solstizio d’inverno).

Tradition says that children need to write a letter for Lucia and leave it on the windowsill, with a cup of hot milk for her, a glass of wine for Castaldo and some hay for the donkey. This tradition, widespread in some areas in the Northeast of Italy, is so strong that it surpasses Christmas in popularity. Nowadays children in these regions celebrate both days and get double presents. To us youngsters in Milan, it was a bit frustrating.

A historical note from Dianne:

Lucia, whose name derives from the Latin lux or lucis for light (luce in Italian), was a young girl who lived in Syracuse on the island of Sicily in the third century. According to various legends, this saintly virgin would wear a wreath of candles as she carried food to Christians hiding in underground tunnels. When a suitor claimed to be captivated by her eyes, Lucia plucked them out and had them sent to him on a platter. (In another version, she was blinded and miraculously cured.)

Denounced as a Christian, Lucia was ordered to work in a brothel by Roman authorities. She refused to go, and nothing—not even a fire set under her feet—could get her to budge. One of her persecutors ultimately killed her by stabbing her in the throat.

The patron saint of sight, Lucia is often portrayed holding a plate with a pair of eyeballs on it. As a way of tasting the enlightenment St. Lucia brings, Italians eat “gli occhi di Santa Lucia” (the eyes of St. Lucia), usually made from bread or biscotti.  

Lucia gained greater fame in 1582, when famine struck Syracuse. On December 13 a boat filled with grain appeared in the harbor. Rather than processing the grain into flour, the starving people simply boiled and ate it. Sicilians honor the memory of St. Lucia by lighting bonfires and abstaining from anything made of wheat flour on December 13.

They traditionally prepare cuccia (which rhymes with Lucia), a dessert made of whole wheat berries, cooked in water and mixed with sweetened ricotta flavored with candied orange bits and shaved chocolate. According to an old Sicilian proverb, "A Santa Lucia un cuecciu di cuccia.”  (On Santa Lucia’s day a tad of cuccia. ) This also refers to the ever-so-slight lengthening of the daylight hours that comes with the winter solstice.

Words and Expressions

Per Santa Lucia il giorno corre via — The day of St. Lucia goes fast.

Da Santa Lucia il freddo si mette in via — From St. Lucia’s day, the cold is on its way.

Santa Lucia con il fango, Natale all’asciutto — St. Lucia with mud, Christmas is dry. (If it rains on the 13th, it won’t on the 25th)

Riccardo Cristiani is the head Italian teacher at Dante-Learning, an online Italian language school based in Milan and Tokyo, with students from many countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan.

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.  To win one of these titles, Dream of Italy by Charles Carpenter and JoAnn Locktov or 50 Places in Rome, Florence and Venice Every Woman Should Go in a Buone Feste Book Giveaway, send an e-mail to by December 19 and specify which title you would  most like to receive. 

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