One aspect to travel that never ceases to mesmerize me are the surprise festivals and local celebrations you can stumble upon without plan or research. Some years ago, on December 13th in Siracusa, Sicily, I was able to join a rare celebration dedicated to the town’s patron saint, Santa Lucia. While most know of the Catholic saint as hailing from Sweden, the story actually originates on the island of Sicily.
Even putting religion aside, Sicilians from all around the island head for Piazza Duomo in Siracusa’s old town center of Ortigia, waiting for one woman. Fathers hoist their children on their shoulders in hopes of catching a glimpse of Santa Lucia.
There is something to be said for a tradition that has continued century after century. If you couldn’t make it this year, here are a few facts about Lucia and her celebration in Sicily that just may make you a believer in any Sicilian party.
Sicilian, not Swedish: Most people associate Sicily with the mafia group Cosa Nostra, meaning “Our Thing” in Italian. While Lucia had nothing to do with the Sicilian mafia, she supposedly lived in the town of Siracusa, not in Sweden. Siracusa boasts Lucia and her story as “their thing”. Even though Lucia is considered a popular saint in Sweden, her story was merely carried up by priests from Italy, spreading Christianity to Scandinavia.
A girl that didn’t want to get married: As some legends tell, Lucia did not want to marry, but rather sought to remain true to her faith. In an effort to get her mother’s approval, she miraculously cured her illness through prayer, as the story goes. In the end, Lucia was killed around the 4th century due to her strong Christian beliefs. Her betrothed groom wasn’t too pleased with her choice of religion and made it known, at a time when Christians were persecuted severely. Lucia remains one of the strongest female characters to come out of Sicily, rejecting notions of marriage before it was chick flick cool.
The beautiful weight problem of Lucia: In Siracusa, a statue to Lucia is paraded through town on December 13th. Shiny, silver and impossibly heavy, around sixty men are needed to carry her. Every few moments, they put her down, chanting as the rest of town murmurs a response. As legend would have it, when the councils came to take Lucia away and kill her due to her outward Christian beliefs, she made herself impossibly heavy. The same is true today. Families watch the silver Lucia from their balconies as little old ladies in the streets clutch their rosaries in prayer.
Celebrations fit for a queen: Perhaps one of the more out there aspects to the celebration of Santa Lucia in Siracusa comes with the 18th century horse drawn carriage that follows her. Not in keeping with her time period, the carriage and horse look as though they dropped out of the pages of Cinderella and not 4th century Sicily. In addition to the horse and buggy, observers of the festival can expect to hear and see fireworks blasting off of the harbor as marching band music continues without stopping the uniform sound. If you find yourself in Siracusa on December 13th, you may think the most important person in the world is making an appearance. In the end, it is the touching elbows with locals while waiting for a glimpse of silver that makes for one of Sicily’s most intimate celebrations.