Celebrating St. Lucy, patroness of the blind and visually impaired

Most of what we know about St. Lucy is relegated to the realm of rumors and romantic legend.

Much of her history has been lost over the years, so there are only a handful of things we know for certain about this saint.

Her life

What we do know is that she was a holy and courageous young woman who lived in Syracuse, Italy and was martyred during the Diocletianic Persecution of 304 AD.

Most traditional accounts of her life state her year of birth as 283, meaning she would have been only in her early 20s when she was martyred. She was born to wealthy and devout parents, but her father passed away when she was very young. Her mother’s name, Eutychia, indicates that St. Lucy’s family was of Greek origin.

At a young age, St. Lucy (or Lucia, in Italian) consecrated herself to the Lord, promising to remain a virgin and hoping to give her dowry to the poor. Unaware of her plans, Eutychia, who was suffering from a blood disease, promised Lucy’s hand in marriage to a wealthy young pagan, hoping to see her daughter married off before she died.

But Eutychia was cured after she and Lucy prayed to St. Agatha at her shrine in the nearby Catania, and Lucy was finally able to convince Eutychia to let her forgo marriage and to divide her riches among the poor.

Eutychia and Lucy at the Tomb of Saint Agatha, by Jacobello del Fiore.

Her martyrdom

As the traditional story goes, word reached Lucy’s betrothed that she was giving away her dowry and no longer planned to marry him. Angry, he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse, who ordered Lucy to offer a burnt sacrifice before an image of the emperor as punishment.

When she refused, Paschasius then sentenced Lucy to defilement at a brothel. But, legend has it that when the guards came to drag her to the brothel, she could not be moved, even after being hitched to a team of oxen. Angered, they piled wood around her to burn her, but the wood would not burn. She was eventually martyred by the sword for refusing to denounce her faith or defile her purity.

According to legend, St. Lucy was also known for bringing food and aid to persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs using a candle-lit wreath to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. This aiding of persecuted Christians would have also angered the Governor and may have been the reason she was killed.

Lucy Before the Judge, by Lorenzo Lotto.

Devotion to St. Lucy quickly spread, with evidence of devotion to her in Rome by the 6th century, and in England until the time of the Protestant Reformation.

Patron of the Blind

St. Lucy is often depicted holding her eyes on a gold plate or in her hand, and she is the patron saint of blindness and eye problems. However, it wasn’t until around the 15th century that the legends surrounding her life included stories about her eyes. One story claims that part of her torture at the hands of the Governor included having her eyes plucked out. Another story claims that she plucked out her own eyes in order to dissuade a persistent suitor who found her eyes particularly attractive.

Saint Lucy by Domenico Beccafumi.

Festival of Light

Her feast day, known as St. Lucy’s Day, is celebrated in the West on Dec. 13.

Because her feast day used to correspond with the winter solstice, and because the meaning of the name Lucy is “light”, her feast day became a festival of light, especially popular in Scandinavian countries because of their long, dark, cold winter days.

In Norway, Sweden, and other Scandinavian countries, her feast day is celebrated with a procession, led by a girl dressed as St. Lucy with a crown of candles on her head and a red sash around her waist, symbolizing her martyrdom. The girl often carries a tray of cookies or other goodies and is followed by carolers holding candles, representing the fire the refused to burn St. Lucy. It is also a traditional day to first light one’s Christmas tree.

It is believed that a good celebration of the feast day of St. Lucy will give one enough light to endure the dark winter days ahead.

In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, she is also recognized as a saint by the Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox Churches.

By Mary Rezac / Catholic News Agency/EWTN News