Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Italian Christmas Season and Saint Lucy’s Day

At our Sicilian biscotti workshop last weekend, we had some discussion of the Christmas season in Italy. The season commenced this past Wednesday, December 8, with the Festa della Immacolata, a celebration of Mary and the immaculate conception. It will continue through Christmas and into the new year, finishing on the twelfth day of Christmas with the Festa dell'Epifania, the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany commemorates the day when the three wise men arrived at the manger bearing gifts. Italy's tradition associated with that day includes a witch known as La Befana who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5 and leaves presents for children – at least those who have been good.

Another holiday season event falls tomorrow, December 13, with the celebration, at least in certain parts of Italy, of the Giorno di Santa Lucia or Saint Lucy’s Day. (I prefer Lucia, since Lucy is a name I have trouble hearing without thinking of Peanuts.) Lucia was from Siracusa (Syracuse) on the southeast coast of Sicilia, and is the patron saint of the city. She was martyred in the 4th century after having the poor judgment of refusing to marry a vindictive pagan, and distributing her dowry to the poor.

Tomorrow, the day commemorating Santa Lucia’s martyrdom, there will be a procession in Siracusa in the late afternoon and evening with seventy bearers carrying an elaborate silver statue of the saint through the streets of the city.

The procession will start at the Duomo on the island of Ortygia in Siracusa’s harbor, and will proceed to the Church of Santa Lucia on the mainland, which is built on the site where Santa Lucia was martyred. Here is a video of the procession, and below two pictures from “Immaginario barocco,” the book which accompanied the exhibition of the work of the Sicilian photographer, Giuseppe Leone, that appeared at the Museo ItaloAmericano in San Francisco in 2008.

According to somewhat grisly legends associated with Santa Lucia, she either tore out her own eyes when her pagan suitor admired them, or they were gouged out by her captors prior to her execution. In any case, she is typically portrayed, as can be seen in the pictures at the beginning of this post, carrying two eyes on a plate, and she has become the patron saint for those who are blind or who suffer from eye disorders. This is reflected in the votive offerings that are left for the saint, as well as in various breads and cookies prepared in connection with her day.

However, perhaps the dish most closely associated with Santa Lucia is one which is prepared on her day in Palermo and has nothing to do with eyesight. According to legend, the people of Palermo were suffering from a famine when, on December 13, a mysterious ship appeared in the port loaded with wheat. The people were so hungry that rather than take the time to grind the wheat into flour, they simply cooked and ate it as it was. Ever since, to commemorate the saint’s intervention, on Santa Lucia’s day the people of Palermo have refrained from eating any dishes such as bread or pasta prepared with ground wheat, and have instead eaten boiled wheat berries, a dish called la cuccìa. Originally the boiled wheat was just eaten plain or with a bit of salt and olive oil added. More recently, in the best Palermitano tradition, the dish has evolved to more of a dessert prepared with ingredients such as ricotta cheese, candied fruit, honey and chocolate.

Another "Santa Lucia" that many American’s associate with Italy would be the song written in the 1800’s, and performed here by Enrico Caruso and here by Mario Lanza. I never knew to what the song refers, but have now learned that it relates to a boatman seeking customers in the Santa Lucia waterfront district (Borgo Santa Lucia) in Naples, as can be seen from the following lyrics from the first two verses.

Happy St. Lucy's Day!


Simona said...

Nice post! Sometimes, when I make ricotta at home, I use it to prepare a dessert inspired by cuccia. We also have a saying: Santa Lucia, il giorno piu' corto che ci sia (the shortest day).

gastronomichael said...

Ciao Simona: Thanks for your comment and also the link to the recipe on your wonderful Briciole site. Another good reason to learn to make ricotta! I also appreciated the saying about the shortest day of the year. Although I did not put it in my post, I understand that was the reason why the Swedes adopted Santa Lucia's day as the day for their festival of light - i.e. when the days began getting longer again. Of course, having been born on December 21 I know that is in fact the shortest day of the year! Buon Natale!!