Songs of the Season ~ Sankta Lucia

The name of the young woman in this contemporary icon — Saint Lucy –is derived from the Latin word for light (lux), a fact which helps to explain how she became embedded into cultural traditions and Christmas celebrations from Italy to Sweden and beyond.

Born in Syracuse, Sicily in 283 AD, Lucy was martyred at the age of twenty after refusing to marry a pagan nobleman. According to legend, she was sentenced to a life of prostitution, but when guards arrived to take her away, she remained frozen in place and impossible to move. More torture took place before her death, including the removal of her eyes; some icons show her holding those eyes on a golden platter.

One of the earliest Christian martyrs to achieve popularity, Lucy became the patron saint of her city of birth, but her fame spread far beyond Syracuse. In Naples, along the waterfront district known as Borgo Santa Lucia, Neapolitan gondoliers sang a traditional song associated with her as they plied their boats, or barcas, across the water.

In 1849, Teodoro Cottrau (1827-1879) translated that song, “Santa Lucia,” from Neapolitan into Italian, publishing it as a barcarola, or boat song, and making it the first Neapolitan song to be given Italian lyrics.

A celebration of the Borgo Santa Lucia, the song portrays a gondolier inviting his customers to take a turn in his little boat, his barchetta, while they enjoy the beauty of an evening on the sea. Enrico Caruso’s recording of the song may be one of the most well-known, but this performance by Beniamino Gigli seemed lighter and more pleasing to me.

Sul mare luccia l’astro d’argento,
Placida è l’onda, prospero è il vento
Venite all’agile barchetta mia…
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Con questo zeffiro, così soave
Oh! Com’è bello star su la nave!
Su passaggieri, venite via!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
O dolce Napoli, o suol beato,
Ove sorridere volle il creato
Tu sei l’impero dell’armonia!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Upon this brilliant sea, a star of silver,
Across the gentle waves, the wind is sweeping.
Upon this brilliant sea, a star of silver,
Across the gentle waves, the wind is sweeping.
Come help my little boat sail swiftly to the shore,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Come help my little boat sail swiftly to the shore,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Full sail with breezes fair, so gentle are they,
Oh, how this ship can feel, so fine beneath me,
Full sail with breezes fair, so gentle are they,
Oh, how this ship can feel, so fine beneath me,
All passengers aboard, come sail the sea with me,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
All passengers aboard, come sail the sea with me,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Oh, my sweet Napoli, Oh, blessed soil,
Where nature smiles upon all of creation,
Oh, my sweet Napoli, Oh, blessed soil,
Where nature smiles upon all of creation,
You are the harmony, you are the empire,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
You are the harmony, you are the empire,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

As with most legends surrounding the life and death of St. Lucy, no certainty exists when it comes to her incorporation into Swedish life. During the 10th century, her feast day — December 13 — spread from France to Germany and England. She appeared on the Swedish liturgical calendar as early as 1470, when Sweden still was a Catholic country, and she survived the Reformation under King Gustav Vasa in the 16th century.

Still, her celebrations weren’t purely Christian. As with other winter solstice traditions, there were clear references to the dualities of life — darkness and light, cold and warmth — as well as to older, even darker traditions.

In northern Sweden, a belief held sway that Lucia was Adam’s first wife; that she consorted with Lucifer; and that their descendants spent their time in a very cold, very dark underworld. Even today’s traditional festive treat, the Lucia buns, or lussekatter, were in the old days called djävulskatter, or the devil’s cat; their shape was intended to represent a curled-up cat with raisin eyes.

Lucia Night, the evening before her feast, was considered a dangerous time: filled with supernatural beings and animals that could speak. The braver and bolder youngsters would dress as Lucia figures (lussegubbar), then wander from house to house singing songs and begging for food and schnapps.

Things began to take a turn with the first recorded appearance of a white-clad Swedish Lucia in 1764. By the 1880s, the eldest daughter in a household might serve coffee and lussekatter to others in the household. In the early 1900s, schools and local associations began promoting Sankta Lucia; as they did, lussegubbars faded away and singing processions became a more acceptable form of celebration than the youthful carousing of the past. In 1919, Sigrid Elmblad published lyrics to Santa Lucia in Swedish, using Teodoro Cottrau’s music, and Sankta Lucia was born.

Stockholm established its first Lucia celebration in 1927, paying tribute to Saint Lucy by placing a crown of fresh greens and lighted candles on the head of the girl chosen to represent Lucia. According to yet another legend, Saint Lucy had taken food to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs while wearing candles to light her way, leaving her hands free to carry as much food as possible.

In today’s homes, the eldest daughter may forgo white robes and candlelit wreaths, but she still rises before the rest of the family to serve them lussekatter and coffee, as well as gingersnaps and mulled wine (glögg). In  villages and towns across Sweden — and in Swedish communities around the world — there are Lucia processions, concerts, and celebrations to signify the beginning of the Christmas season.

Even though my own grandparents arrived in this country from Sweden well before the formalization of Lucia festivities, they knew and honored the traditions. My grandmother baked lussekatter; they taught me the song; and once — just once! — I was allowed to wear a candlelit wreath in my hair.

In frigid, snow-deep darkness, my parents drove me the thirty miles to my grandparents’ home. We let ourselves in, arranged the lussekatter on a plate, and poured coffee from a thermos. Then, candles lighted and excitement high, we sang my grandparents awake.

Natten går tunga fjät runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som sol förlät, skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus, stiger med tända ljus,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Natten var stor och stum. Nu hör, det svingar,
i alla tysta rum, sus som av vingar.
Se på vår tröskel står vitkläd med ljus i hår,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Mörkret skall flykta snart ur jordens dalar.”
Så hon ett underbart ord till oss talar.
Dagen skall åter gry, stiga ur rosig sky,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Night walks with a heavy step
Round yard and hearth,
As the sun departs from earth,
Shadows are brooding.
There in our dark house,
Walking with lit candles,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Night walks grand, yet silent,
Now hear its gentle wings,
In every room so hushed,
Whispering like wings.
Look, at our threshold stands,
White-clad with light in her hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Darkness shall take flight soon,
From earth’s valleys.
So she speaks
Wonderful words to us:
A new day will rise again
From the rosy sky…
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Comments always are welcome.

Still Grandma’s Girl

Because they never owned a car and never learned to drive, someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to the celebration of my third birthday.

Generally, we traveled to their home for Sunday dinners or holiday celebrations: a thirty-five mile trip to a modest frame house in one of south-central Iowa’s tiny coal-mining communities. Why the routine was broken for this occasion I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot: my only image of this improbable couple.

Born in Sweden, they traveled to America as strangers on the same ship. After meeting and marrying in Minneapolis, they moved to Iowa, struggled through the Depression, raised six children, and delighted in their grand-children. Then, they were gone.

Loving but taciturn, Grandpa preferred time in his workshop to front porch socializing, although he welcomed the presence of grandchildren, and I joined him as often as I could.

Along one edge of his work bench, chisels and awls marched in formation, arranged by height. Secured to a wall, saws, axes, and an adze gleamed in the faint light, rust-free and ready for work.

A small cubby held tacks, nails, and screws in assorted tins, while close by the unlocked door, a small cigar box contained a scattering of nickels and pennies, as well as packs of cigarettes and matches.

In those days of penny candy, the contents of the cigar box represented a fortune to a child. When I asked — very casually and with studied disinterest — if the money was his, Grandpa said it had been left by friends who’d stopped by for a smoke.

Decades later, I realized the truth. Those ‘friends’ were strangers: men riding the rails; men stopping off where they hoped to find a meal, a day’s work, or perhaps even a cigarette; men who contributed what they could to ensure a smoke for the next man off the rails.

Grandpa, my dad, and the workshop ~ ready for company

While the men busied themselves in the back yard, the women clustered on the front porch, stitching smiling radishes and dancing tomatoes across acres of cotton sacking.

While they worked, I snapped beans, sorted thread, or wandered off to indulge myself in a long-standing family ritual called Checking Out The Pantry. Long and narrow, lit by a single hanging bulb and lined with shelves that climbed higher than any child’s sight, Grandma’s pantry was a marvel.

On the right, jars of home-canned vegetables and fruits, jellies and jams, spiced crabapples, and luscious bread-and-butter pickles shimmered in the dim light.

To the left, Saltines and gingersnaps snuggled up against cupcakes and rolls from the Omar man. Jewel Tea premiums — pie plates, pitchers, and baking dishes — shared shelf space with store-bought cookies and homemade pies. A footed cake plate with an aluminum cover sat next to my favorite kitchen tool — a glass whipping bowl with a combination lid and beaters that belonged to any child patient enough to whip the cream.There were fennel and caraway seeds for limpa bread, tins of sprats, and bags of salt for preserving cod or making ice cream.

The rule for the house was the rule for the pantry. Children were to look, but not touch; we rarely snitched a cookie without asking, and we never picked up a figurine in the living room, or rearranged the colored glass bottles in the kitchen window.

But life with Grandma entailed more than “just looking”. In her mind, any child with time enough to stare into a pantry was a child with time to help out — especially with cleaning.

Dish-washing, dusting, and sweeping were part of our daily routine and didn’t qualify as cleaning. Serious house-cleaning took place according to some mysterious schedule that was impossible to predict. Grandma could clean with the best of them when she put her mind to it, but she often had other, more interesting things on her mind. Still, when the spirit moved and she declared, “Time to Clean!” the process was a wonder to behold.

Spring and autumn were dedicated to window washing, rug-beating, curtain laundering, and porch-painting. With windows thrown open to air the house, neighbors could track her progress by the scents: fresh lavender for the drawers; Spic-N-Span for linoleum; lemon oil for furniture, and vinegar for glass.

In winter, a different kind of cleaning took place. Between Christmas and the first days of the New Year, Grandma set aside dusting and sweeping for a project terrifying in its scope.

While Grandpa fled the house and neighbors gave her a wide berth, Grandma went to work with a zeal that reminded my father of Sherman’s March to the Sea. She inventoried every closet, emptied and rearranged every drawer, looked under every bed and sorted through every piece of paper and clothing in the house, seeking the forgotten, the unused and the unnecessary.

“Karin Larsson at the Linen Cupboard” ~ Carl Larsson

She was by nature a saver, frugal and self-sufficient, but she also believed that if we hadn’t used it, looked at it, or remembered it in the past year, we didn’t need it. If we’d forgotten the existence of a toy, someone else should play with it. Unused items could become newly useful in another home. Was there a knick-knack no one enjoyed? It might bring joy to someone else.

Of course her definitions of ‘useful’ and ‘necessary’ were remarkably elastic: akin to William Morris’s dictum that there should be nothing in our homes that we “do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Boxes of rarely viewed photographs, letters written during the wars, greeting cards from grandchildren, and postcards from friends in the old country always were saved. Worn towels, outgrown clothing, lace trim from old bed linens, and fabric scraps were saved and transformed into quilts or rugs. The enormous roasting pan stayed. Wooden barrels stayed. Buttons and bias tape stayed.

But unclaimed dishes from a year’s worth of church dinners? Costumes for dolls that had been broken or given away? Unread magazines? Outgrown shoes or broken mirrors? Their fate was sealed.

In the end, very little was thrown away and very little more was given away, but Grandma entered each New Year knowing precisely what her house contained, and precisely where to find it.

Looking back, I’m not surprised the family rolled its collective eyes when Grandma began her battle with clutter. But she was determined to maintain her annual ritual and, since I was available during Christmas vacation, she often pressed me into service.

We spent hours working together: shoving and carrying, lifting and rearranging. No matter how tedious the labor, no matter how frustrating the hours I spent working rather than playing, when we were done I felt a bit lighter myself, as though all that excess, all those unnecessary accretions had been a burden pressing down on my own young life.

And that, I suppose, was her point. In the end, the unnecessary and the unwanted turn out to be burdens, and it’s always best to enter the New Year with as few burdens as possible. 

As each new year begins, memories of my grandmother and her routine never fail to surface.

For years those memories have caused me to do my own cleaning of closets and drawers – looking things over, sorting them out, making decisions with a certain sense of urgency, as though Grandma herself might suddenly step through the door, ready to judge my efforts.

This year, with so much sorting and digging and dispersing already behind me because of my move, household clutter isn’t an issue. But freed from the need to sort through possessions, I find myself pondering a new possibility: what would happen if we approached life itself as Grandma approached her house? What if her lessons about the unnecessary, the useless, and the unwanted have broader application?

Like most people, I have a lifetime of preconceptions accumulated in the corners of my mind. There are a few prejudices that could stand a good sorting, not to mention a few irrationalities.

Some tendrils of laziness could stand to be pruned, and those small grudges that litter our lives like crumbs on a carpet would sweep up easily enough once we began. If a light film of anger dims the world’s light, it would take almost no effort to wipe it away: only a bit of will, and a little energy.

Standing at the end of one year and looking toward the start of another through my grandmother’s eyes, I already feel lighter. It’s good to clean house.

 

Comments always are welcome.