Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN 29, entry Nov 2009

contains audio

verybody Loves Lucy

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent...

...Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

John Donne, A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day

St. Lucy's Day is celebrated in Sweden and elsewhere in Scandinavia
— indeed, in Scandinavian communities around the world— on December 13, the day of the winter solstice, the "year's and the day's deep midnight" in the old Julian calendar. It is a festival of light to mark the beginning of the return of daylight and warmth as the year progresses. (The name Lucy, itself, comes from the Latin lux —light.)*1 The festival is named for St. Lucy —in Italian, Santa Lucia —a martyred Roman Catholic saint from the fourth century; she is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse in Sicily and the patron saint of the blind.

Readers may know that Santa Lucia is also the name of a popular Neapolitan song about the area of that name in Naples. In older literature, the quarter used to be referred to as "a small fishing village outside of Naples." Indeed, even in recent material apparently prepared by people who have never been there, it has been called "a town near Naples." Nothing of the sort; it is precisely the area across from the famous Egg Castle of Naples. That area, however, is not what it used to be; the original fishing port of Santa Lucia was filled in and built over with fashionable hotels around 1900 as part of the urban renewal of the city known as the Risanamento.

The song, Santa Lucia, a delicate barcarole besinging the charm of the area is one of the three most popular Neapolitan songs in terms of worldwide recognition. The other two are certainly 'O sole mio and Funiculì Funiculà, both of well-established authorship. Santa Lucia is a bit uncertain. Some sources credit Teodoro Cottrau (1827–1879) for both melody and lyrics; others say that he took an existing and anonymous traditional melody and wrote lyrics to it in Neapolitan, publishing it at Naples in 1849. He later translated the lyrics into Italian, making it the first Neapolitan song to be widely known in Italy. (This was before the great wave of national and international fame of the genre, which started in the 1880s with Funiculì Funiculà.)*2

[audio & text to Santa Lucia here]

Back to Sweden. To celebrate St. Lucy's Day, it is now traditional to sing the melody of the Neapolitan song, Santa Lucia, with appropriate Swedish lyrics. Although there are various texts, a popular one says,

                    The night treads heavily
                    around yards and dwellings
                    In places unreached by sun,
                    the shadows brood
                    Into our dark house she comes,
                    bearing lighted candles,
                    Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

How did a Catholic patron saint of Syracuse (see note 6, below) wind up being celebrated in modern secular (or at least Lutheran!) Stockholm? If you are thinking of 4th-century pilgrimages along the ancient and fabled Sicily-Sweden Silk & Lighted Candle Road, alas, the story is somewhat more mundane.*3 Within the centuries-old tradition of St. Lucy's in Sweden, the Neapolitan song, Santa Lucia, is recent. The melody was known to Swedish visitors in southern Italy in the 1800s. For example, Swedish author and feminist activist, Frederika Bremer (1801-1865), in Lifvet i gamla verlden (pub. Stockholm, 1860), writes from Ischia of the "authentic and beautiful barcarole, Santa Lucia." And Swedish writer, Viktor Rydberg, even includes the Italian text of the song in his Romerska sägner om apostlarna Petrus och Paulus from 1874.

Yet it wasn't until 1927 that the song went national in Sweden, when a Stockholm newspaper announced a national festival to pick —I hate to say it— a Miss Lucy for the entire nation and introduced the official song, the Santa Lucia melody with Swedish text by Arvid Rosen. Thus, the small-town rural celebration in which the eldest sister*4 arises early and dons her Lucy garb of white robe, red sash, and a wire crown covered with whortleberry-twigs with nine lighted candles fastened in it to go and then awaken the family and serve them breakfast, thus ushering in the Christmas season... well, all that has been urbanized a bit. There are still "home" Lucys and small town Lucys, yes, but there are also Lucys chosen by businesses and corporations, and there is a national Lucy, as well, chosen from regional winners of Lucy contests. (I don't know if the national Lucy weeps and promises to reduce global warming and work for world peace.)


1. The name may be more complex. Agneta Lilja of Södertörn University College in Sweden speaks of "...the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam’s first wife...[a demon of sorts]...Thus the name may be associated with both lux (light) and Lucifer... ."

And even worse. Lussi is also the name of a female personage in pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology. Her night, Lussinatta, was celebrated at the winter solstice. The similarity between  Lussi and Lucy requires little comment. It is probably a strong coincidence —if you believe in those things— that the name vaguely resembles Lillith, Adam's first wife in Hebrew mythology according to some Rabbinic literature. (^to text)

2. Roberto Murolo, the most noted 20th-century scholar of the Neapolitan song has a slightly different version of the history of the song: "No one knows the real author of the dialect verses that Cossavich translated into Italian and that became famous. They say that Cottrau wrote the music." (in Antologia della Canzone Partenopea. notes to Santa Lucia, vol. 2, ms AI 77070, released by Durium.)

The precise identity of "Cossavich" is obscure. It may be Mario Cossavich, an enlistee in 1860 in the battles of the Italian risorgimento, a time at which other sources say that Cottrau translated the text into standard Italian.  (^to text)

3. It is important to distinguish between the presence of the St. Lucy tradition in Sweden and the presence of the song, Santa Lucia. Swedish veneration of St. Lucy is not mundane, though it is not clear exactly how she wound up in Sweden. Swedish mariners who had traveled to Italy might have brought back the tradition as long ago as the year 1000, or possibly it has to do with St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), well-known in Naples as Santa Brigida; she may have received papal consent (from Pope Urban V) to found her own religious order in Sweden, arguing that the already existing and strong veneration of Santa Lucia justified a further religious order. (Younger readers —under 500 years of age— should note that this was before the Protestant Reformation.) (^to text)

4. Obviously, Lucy has traditionally been a girl, but The Local, Sweden's News in English from Dec. 12, 2008 reports that in spite of Sweden's staunchly liberal and egalitarian stance in most social matters, Swedes can still be traditional when it comes to St. Lucy. In 2008, in at least two schools, the duly elected Lucys were denied the crown of Lucyhood because they were males.

5. This note added in January 2021 in connection with the gift-giving day (Jan 6th) of the Befana in Italy. Actually, in some places there is an early gift-giving day in the year-end season, December 13, the feast day of Santa Lucia. Her remains are in Venice, but there are other areas where the devotion to her is very strong Syracuse on Sicily, for example. In various places she thus leads a month-long parade of gifts for the kids. That is not the case in Naples, although it might have been! That is, there is a well-known section of Naples called Santa Lucia and a famous Neapolitan song by that name but the once important church of
Santa Lucia a Mare (on the sea) had to be rebuilt after war-time destruction. It is no longer the "monument" church it used to be. This is a link to that story.

6. Finally but really first of all The saint, herself, was a very real person, more precisely known as Lucia of Syracuse (283-304) because she was born in Syracuse on the island of Sicily. She died there as well, a martyr to emperor Diocletian's infamous persecution of Christians. The closer you get to Sicily the more likely you are to hear her referred to as "Santa Lucia of Syracuse." Although her mortal remains are interred in Venice, "the headquarters" of her devotees is still the Church of Santa Lucia of the Sepulcher in Syracuse.

(^to text)

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