Dear fellow travellers
'Tis the year's midnight,' wrote the poet John Donne of these short December days. Donne refers to the feast of Santa Lucia on 13 December as being the shortest day, and in early seventeenth-century England it really was. While some Catholic parts of Europe had already switched to the Gregorian calendar, England stuck tenaciously to the old Julian calendar, so the solstice fell on or around 13 December. England, finding the new Gregorian calendar a bit too papist for its tastes, did not switch to 'new time' until 1752.
Under the Gregorian calendar, the winter solstice (and thus the shortest day) typically falls on 21 December, so severing the historic link with Santa Lucia. But the various festivals of light that take place across Europe this evening (on the eve of Santa Lucia) and again tomorrow nicely anticipate the pre-Christmas solstice.
Santa Lucia is patron saint of Siracusa, the island fortress city on the Sicilian coast, where Lucia was born in the late third century. The story tells of her being martyred in her home city at the tender age of twenty. Of course, Santa Lucia's feast is marked in Siracusa, but it is to northern Europe that we must look for the most demonstrative expression of the cult of light associated with Santa Lucia.
Lucia Day in Sweden brings some mid-winter light to an otherwise dark time of the year. Lucia and her bridesmaids process through various cities, visiting kindergartens and churches, and as a dark day settles into night, there are often fireworks. Food is part of any festival, and in Sweden the defining titbits are saffron cakes - called lussekatter (literally Lucy's cats). Meanwhile, down in Siracusa, the traditional fare on the feast of Santa Lucia is a kind of wheat gruel with berries called cuccia.
Dark it may be, and yet by some marvellous astronomical alchemy, the sun will return. Meanwhile, though, let us enjoy this deep midnight of a fading year.
If you are like us, and mid-winter malaise makes you loathe to leave your home during these solstice days, then please consider whether a subscription to hidden europe magazine may make the perfect Christmas gift. To purchase hidden europe for a friend or partner, or even for yourself, just click here.
You can order a subscription to start with our current November 2008 issue or with the upcoming January one, coupled perhaps with a few back issues that focus on a favourite theme or area of Europe. We will process orders throughout next week, and though time is now getting tight, we would hope that orders received by next Tuesday evening will still secure pre-Christmas delivery in many parts of Europe.
hidden europe 24 (dated January 2009) will be previewed in the next issue of our e-news. Had you realised that you can review the table of contents of every back issue of the magazine on our website?