I’m back with some more Croatian Christmas customs. I hope you survived the St Nicholas eve. You don’t know about it? That means you haven’t listened to the previous episode – make sure to go back and get to know the “fun” traditions related to St Nicholas feast day. For those of you who did listen to it, I hope the last episode didn’t scare you off and that you came back for more unusual Croatian traditions. Let’s meet St Lucy! Listen to the episode or scroll down to continue reading.
Oh, Lucy, what a lovely name! How do you imagine a Lucy? In Croatian, the name is Lucija, or in some parts Luca, Luce. Svjetlana and Jasna are also considered to be variations of the name. Svjetlana is a word built around the Croatian word for “light” – svjetlo. Jasna is built around the word “clear”, not clear as transparent, but as in seeing clearly, understanding something clearly, speaking clearly.
Really, how would you imagine a Lucy?
You might have heard of her as the protagonist of the famous Italian song Santa Lucia. Many nations across the world have certain folk customs related to St Lucy. Sometimes, they’re not even aware of it. For instance, you might have heard about the 12 days of Christmas concept, and you haven’t even realized that the 12 days start with the feast day of St Lucy, December the 13th.
Are you by any chance familiar with the northern Yuletide traditions? You might recognize some similarities, particularly the significance of the 12 days before Christmas. Some parts of Croatia distinctively classify St Lucy’s day as the beginning of Christmastide. This day in a year is, in some parts of Europe, known as Little Yule and is celebrated as a festival of light.
You might have heard about the Swedish customs of honoring St Lucy by putting a wreath of lit candles in girls’ hair? That will always seem a bit dangerous to me, but I guess they know what they’re doing!
I choose to leave the candles out of my hair and to go to a place where I feel safer, to Croatian traditions related to St Lucy. I’m only kidding, there’s nothing safer about them. Unless you think that scarring your children for life is a good idea.
I already mentioned some light-related traditions of St. Lucy’s which are obviously leftovers of her name, derived from the Latin word for light. It seems that the name and some of the traditions related to the saint come from the old Roman solar goddess Juno, also known as Lucina. The significance of this day is clearly in connection with the fact that St. Lucy’s Day fell on Winter Solstice before the reform of the Gregorian calendar. It was, therefore the shortest day of the year, the day when the Sun gets reborn and the wheel of the year starts its circle once again – little Yule indeed.
In some parts of Croatia, the name “Mali Božić” – “Little Christmas” is used for St Lucy’s feast day. No wonder there are so many customs connected to light. In the October episodes of this podcast, I prepared a bunch of Halloween specials. What I didn’t tell you back then is that Croatian Halloween is, in a way, in December! They used to carve pumpkins or gourds right on this day. Teenagers used to carry around carved pumpkin lanterns, doing their best to scare the smaller children. And succeeding in that.
Now that you might have remembered some associations of St Lucy, let me ask you again, how do you imagine a Lucy?
St Lucy’s Day in Croatia
This is how the Lucy looks like in Croatian lore:
Just like St Nicholas, Lucy is a gift-bringer. It’s another one of those days of joy for Croatian children. Joy with a twist, I’d say. Luckily enough, usually, it’s not the same parts of Croatia that give gifts for St Nicholas and St Lucy’s. Because I’m sure the kids wouldn’t survive both.
This custom still exists in some villages, but we can call it pretty much lost. I wonder why, such a lovely opportunity to, I don’t know, discipline children? What was wrong with people back in the day? Trigger warning: the next few sentences might be a bit disturbing for some. But hey, if you let your kids listen, at least they will appreciate your family traditions more!
The tradition goes like this. St Lucy visits the homes. One after another. Someone dressed as St Lucy, that is. To be more like her, the person is covered in a white sheet, like a ghost. Lucy carries a silver plate in front of her. On that plate, there is a pair… of freshly picked… pig eyes!!!! Yes, a real pair of eyes from a real animal! She pretends it’s hers. Because Lucy lost her eyes.
There are several versions of her legend. One of the versions claims she cut her own eyes because she was devoted to God, and couldn’t find another way to lose a man who wanted to marry her. Another version says it was a part of the torture she went through before she died a martyr’s death.
As with Saint Nicholas, there’s little knowledge among Croatian folk of where St. Lucy’s customs came from. So, it will come as surprise to learn that wheat planting, the most widely spread custom, still practiced in most of the Croatian homes, is not as old as others that are facing oblivion. That particular tradition got implemented into Croatian folklore just about the time when the Croatian national renaissance took place in the 19th century. Households began to decorate the wheat with a tricolor string, a symbol of the nation, which is still quite common.
However, the symbolism of wheat planting goes deep back through time. It is connected to the end-of-the-year greenery & its symbolism of eternal life.
What we do, we put the wheat seeds in a plate or a bowl, sometimes place a tall candle in the middle of it and sprinkle with some water regularly. There is a superstition that it foretells the amount of material wealth in the following year based on its condition on Christmas. That, however, is probably not true, since my wheat grew wonderfully last year, which didn’t quite correspond to the incomes: )
St Lucy’s Magic and Fortunetelling
With a few seeds of Christmas wheat, we entered the magical zone of St Lucy’s day. This is the perfect day for divination. The divination part has a lot to do with St. Lucy being a guardian of the sight, and that includes the inner sight and the divine one.
Here are a few more instructions on how to foretell the future on this day:
We’ll kick off with the most complicated one, but, as you’ll soon be convinced, it’s worth the effort. Start making a small wooden three-legged stool today, work on it every single day so that the final touches would be done precisely on Christmas Eve. It has to be made out of a single piece of wood, nothing else, no nails or bolts. Take it to the church for the Christmas Eve mass, stand on it, and you’ll be able to recognize all the witches present. You must be ready to flee in that very instance because the witches probably won’t be happy for being exposed. It sounds incredible, like it’s just a story, but I’ve personally met people who tried it in the past and their accounts were crazy. Crazy! It really was a thing back in the day in some rural regions. Let me remind you that Croatia is still a rural country.
This little fortunetelling trick used to be for single ladies only, and I’m going to tell you the traditional version. Traditionally, write down the names of 11 guys you know on 12 pieces of paper and fold them. Each day, randomly burn a piece without checking the name. You do have your fireplace, right? Toss it in. By Christmas, you’ll be left with only one piece of paper. It will unveil to you the name of your future spouse. If any (there’s an empty one, remember?). But, for that magic touch, don’t unfold it until the Midnight mass starts. Feel free to update this custom as you wish, write down any names you like, it doesn’t need to be just for ladies and only male names. I think it’s ok to update it. We’ve updated it anyway by writing down wishes… Think of the impossible, write it down, and at least one of the impossible wishes might come true next year.
Ladies again. I’m sure you’re eager to know how agile will you do with your knitting or embroidery. St. Lucy’s got an answer. All you have to do is try to bring some embers on a plate into the house without scattering any and whichever womanly crafts you try next year, they will be flawless. Other than that, make sure not to do any of them on the very St Lucy’s feast day! Any handwork today might piss Lucy off and she might turn her back on you. Moths will get it and destroy it, and she might as well leave you blind because that’s what you get when you disrespect St Lucy, she might sew your eyes, like the Other Mom from Coraline! All those believes made a perfect excuse for women to get some rest from the chores before the Christmas frenzy takes over.
And finally, a meteorology lesson. Sparkle some salt on 12 slices of onion. After 12 days, right on Christmas, the state of the slices will forecast the weather of each month in the forthcoming year. If the slice is nice, so will the weather be. If it’s rotten, sunny days forgotten.
I hope you found some useful tips in today’s episode. Let me just wrap it up for you so you can get ready for marking St Lucy’s traditional Croatian way. In short, remember – it’s a day when absolutely all of the chores are forbidden, in fact, any work, just lay there and do nothing but fortunetelling; have a lot of lights all around you; and there’s another chance for you to scare the kids! Have fun!
There’s more where this came from, more fun traditions related to certain dates and certain Christmas saints. But I think this was enough for this year’s season. Let’s continue this set of Christmas episodes with something else – another Quick Croatian class. In the next episode, there will be nothing scary at all. You will simply learn the names of the holidays and the common holiday greetings. I look forward to that and hope it will be fun!