12 Days of Christmas Music 2016: 1st Day, “Santa Lucia”

Hello! It’s that time again. Every year this 12 Days of Christmas Music countdown starts December 13 because that’s how the math works to finish the countdown the day before Christmas. But that means that every year this countdown also begins on St. Lucy’s Day or St. Lucia’s Day. Celebrated primarily in some Catholic and Lutheran traditions, St. Lucy’s Day honors the saint Lucy who was a martyr in Syracuse at the turn of the fourth century.

St. Lucy is known for various things including prizing her virginity which she had consecrated to God. Without knowing about this arrangement, Lucy’s mom tried to arrange for her future and set up an engagement. But Lucy wasn’t having it and started giving the family fortune away to the poor. When the betrothed heard about this, he got angry and tried to talk her out of it, by which we mean that he got the governor to order Lucy to go to a brothel. She stubbornly refused, even when they purportedly hooked her up to a team of oxen to drag her there. They had to try various means before Lucy died, but eventually she did and became a celebrated martyr.

saint_lucy_by_domenico_di_pace_beccafumi
Santa Lucia, by Domenico Beccafumi, 1521

Since her death, here are a few other stories about Lucy: They say that she wandered into dark catacombs to bring food to Christians hiding there, and she wore a wreath of candles on her head to keep her hands free for schlepping the food. They say that she had her eyes gouged out, hence the mildly creepy image of Lucy holding a pair of eyes on a platter.  (She’s also the patron saint of sight and of the blind). Get this: she was buried but then had to be moved in 1861. Why? Zoning issues; they decided to put in a railway station. But then thieves stole all her bones except for her head in November 1981! And then they found her bones again on her very feast day. So far parts of St. Lucy’s corpse have made their way to at least five cities in Italy as well as Sweden, France, and Germany. Someone should really make St. Lucy into a movie. For centuries St. Lucy’s Day was on winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This, as well as her name sharing the root of the Latin word for light, lux, has led to St. Lucy’s Day being a celebration of lights.

And that, dear readers, is the theme of this year’s countdown–light.

Let me give you just a few more details about the song for today. The story of the song can basically be summed up like this: a Swede, a Neapolitan, and Elvis walk into a bar… Above in the embedded video you can see a typical Swedish St. Lucia celebration and rendition of the song. But listen to that rolling 6/8 meter! Through the 20+ hours of daily darkness from the Swedes you get a Venetian gondolier. That’s because the song is actually a canzone napoletana like “O sole mio.” It comes from the tradition of songs that Neapolitan boatmen would sing from their boats. So you can bet that the lyrics in the original version weren’t about night walking with heavy step and shadows brooding in our house and darkness taking flight soon, like they are in the Swedish song. Nope. The song’s original lyrics were in praise of a picture-perfect waterfront area of Borgo Santa Lucia in the Bay of Naples, an area that has changed considerably in the 150+ years since the song became more widely known. (You can see images of what it used to look like in the video below.)

First translated from Neapolitan to Italian and published in 1849, the Italian lyrics go something like this,

On the sea glitters the silver star
Gentle the waves, favorable the winds.
Come into my nimble little boat,
Saint Lucy! Saint Lucy!

O sweet Naples, O blessed soil,
Where to smile desired its creation,
You are the kingdom of harmony,
Saint Lucy! Saint Lucy!

So, now you know why the story of the song sounds like the beginning of a joke–Swedes, Neapolitans, and what about Elvis? He recorded it in 1964 for the film Viva Las Vegas. But the song is also popular with Austrian fraternities and is the anthem of Silpakom University in Thailand, whose founder was Italian. It’s versatile like that.

Happy first day of the Christmas music countdown, and Happy St. Lucy’s Day!

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