Ask any child from the Veneto or Lombardy region what their favourite night of the year is, and it won’t be their birthday, nor Halloween, nor even Christmas Eve, but the night before Santa Lucia. This Christian martyr holds all the excitement of Father Christmas, without the huge commercialisation.
The tradition originates in Sicily, the birthplace of this Saint who stood for Catholicism during the Diocletianic Persecution. Her fame has also spread to Scandinavia, where they celebrate with a religious feast on the 13th December. In Northern Italy, however, her tale has evolved into that of a gift-giver. Though Italians will likely disagree, there are several parallels to Father Christmas:
- She brings presents only to good children, and gives coal to those who are bad.
- In the weeks beforehand, children write her a letter explaining how good they have been, and what presents they would like.
- She has a “magical” aspect that allows her to visit all the children in one night.
- Children must go to bed early the eve before her arrival.
However, there are also a couple of elements which highlight just how unique the Santa Lucia tradition is. For instance, although children cannot look at Santa Lucia as with Santa Clause, it is not for spoiling the magic or showing they are naughty for not sleeping, but because Santa Lucia will throw ashes in their eyes, blinding them like herself. Not so much like the jolly red man now, is she? In fact, the three year old I look after needed some reassurance that she really was a “nice lady”, despite the whole ash-throwing thing. On the 12th December she was bursting with excitement, but also genuine fear at accidentally seeing Santa Lucia.
There are at least a couple of weeks lead up to the day, with all the adults asking how good the children have been, and several towns having Santa Lucia and her donkey visit the central piazza for the children to come and see them. There is no sitting on her lap and asking for presents, however. As the three year old bluntly told me when I asked, “Did she say hello to you?” – “Of course not, Sarah. She can’t see, she’s bliiiiind. She carries her eyes on a plate.” Ah, okay then. My mistake.
When she does appear in these small festivals, she is always fully disguised in long gowns and hooded cloaks to hide even her face. Research suggests that she is also accompanied by an escort, Castaldo, however whether this tradition is fading, or present only in certain areas, I am unsure: in the Brescia region of Lombardy, he was never referred to.
As well as the occasional appearance in local festivals, Santa Lucia is also known to check up on children in the preceding days to December 13th. No one is allowed to see her of course – do you want ashes in your eyes? – but she announces her presence by ringing her bells, at which point any child in the vicinity promptly loses all sense of self. Depending on their behaviour, Santa Lucia will leave either sweets or coal, usually just outside the door. She must be a fan of sweets, as she also often uses them as a trail to the main presents on December 13th.
Now, to ruin the magic. Just as it is the parents who are responsible for Santa’s stocking in Britain, it is the mother who is responsible for creating the magic of Santa Lucia, and sometimes also the grandmother. Although children generally grow out of the fantasy by about ten years old, mothers often still give their children – even adult children – a gift for the day, just not on such a grand scale. They buy the gifts, make the sweet trails, and discreetly ring the bells when “she” arrives. So as with most things in Italy, it is all thanks to the mother.
In Brescia, where I live, Santa Lucia truly is a beloved tradition, so much so that Santa Clause is almost non-existent. Though some families are lucky enough to receive gifts from both, the majority see Santa Lucia as the gift-giver for Italy, and Santa Clause as that of other countries. The sad thing for me, however, was that Christmas itself is consequently not such a grand occasion. They have decorations and a family meal, however the day holds little excitement for children, who have already had all the excitement they could ask for a couple of weeks before. Can you imagine a day dedicated simply to a family meal as a child? It wouldn’t seem so thrilling.
However, I will always appreciate how pure the Santa Lucia tradition is in comparison to the big red-suited man. There are children’s songs, promoted toys, and sweets on offer; yet it largely escapes commercialisation, retaining its folk and religious origins. No one, for instance, knows what Santa Lucia looks like beneath her cloaks, so there can be no dolls or figurines of her. She has no sponsors, no huge publicity, and yet every child in Lombardy and Veneto knows her name.
For me, Santa Clause will always be my preferred gift-giver, in the same way I will always be English: it is embedded in my cultural upbringing. But I suppose, whilst in Italy, I can enjoy the best of both worlds – just as long as my own mother continues making me a stocking.