The Long and Short of Winter – An Irishman’s Diary about St Lucy’s Day
Saint Lucy’s Day in Sandviken, Sweden. Photograph: iStock
There was a time, under the old Julian calendar, when December 13th was considered the shortest day of the year. That wasn’t quite accurate then, and it’s definitely not now. But in one sense, today will indeed be the shortest day of 2017, or at least the shortest evening.
Okay, the nights are still getting longer, and will continue to do so until the winter solstice next week. Today’s sunset, however, will be the year’s earliest, at about 4.06pm in Dublin.
The discrepancy arises from the irregularities of solar noon, which you can read more about, as I did, on a website called gibiris.org.
The phenomenon also means that the year’s latest sunrise will not occur until the end of December, more than a week after the 21st.
But in the meantime, the sun is due to set tomorrow all of two seconds later than today.
So if you time it right then, you could be the first person in your workplace to note a “grand oul stretch in the evenings”, with some scientific legitimacy.
Getting back to December 13th, in Christian calendars it is dedicated to St Lucy, a fourth-century virgin martyr from Sicily.
This, combined with the date’s former significance, explains a poem by John Donne (1572-1631) called “A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day”.
As the title suggests, it was written late on this date (“’Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s”) in a year unknown.
In any case, she often appeared in medieval iconography carrying her eyes on a platter
And Donne was remembering either his wife – who had died in 1617 – or his daughter, who was named Lucy and also predeceased him, or both. So the mid-winter gloom matched his mood.
On a more cheerful note, in Scandinavia, St Lucy’s Day is celebrated as a festival of light, although even that has its origins in a dark tradition.
Most stories of the saint suggest she lost her eyes at some stage before her execution in 304AD.
In the most romantic version, when a persistent male suitor admired their beauty, she plucked them out and gave them to him as a present, hoping he would leave the rest of her alone.
Other versions insist it was Roman torturers who did the deed. In any case, she often appeared in medieval iconography carrying her eyes on a platter.
So naturally, among the ways that Sicily now marks her feast-day is by eating Occhi di Santa Lucia ( “St Lucy’s Eyes”): cakes or biscuits, baked in the appropriate shape.
That may sound a bit indelicate. But as one website with the recipe notes, Sicilians have a penchant for this sort of thing.
Other popular delicacies shaped as body parts include Minni di Sant Agata (“St Agatha’s Breasts”), Fede del Cancelliere (“chancellor’s buttocks”), and Pali del Nonno (“grandfather’s testicles”).
Happy baking, everyone.
If you’ve ever taken the train to Venice, you will have arrived in Santa Lucia station. This is because the railway terminus is on the site of the church where the martyr’s relics used to reside, before they were moved elsewhere in the city.
In younger days, he had not been averse to bawdy poetry, as in the elegy 'To his Mistress Going to Bed', when he mentally undresses his wife while likening her seduction to the discovery of America
But the cult of St Lucy spread much farther than Venice. And unusually, it was adopted with greatest enthusiasm in Europe’s Lutheran north.
This may be because the Lucy of Christian myth borrowed heavily from Lucina, a Sabine goddess of light.
Whatever the explanation, in the solar-deprived winter of Scandinavia, her feast-day was especially welcomed as the turning of the year.
In Sweden the date is still marked with processions in which modern-day Lucys parade wearing crowns of lingonberry twigs, topped with seven or nine lighted candles.
These are often real candles, which sounds nearly as dangerous as being a 3rd-century Christian. But in the case of younger Lucys, mercifully, they tend to be battery-powered.
Even poor old John Donne, in his gloom, saw a glimpse of brighter evenings ahead on this date.
In younger days, he had not been averse to bawdy poetry, as in the elegy “To his Mistress Going to Bed”, when he mentally undresses his wife while likening her seduction to the discovery of America.
And in his “Nocturnal” too, he briefly invokes the lustful astrological god of the coming month, Capricorn: “You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser sun/At this time to the goat is run”. But his own goating days are behind him, clearly, so he can only wish the lovers well. In the meantime, all he can see around him is the dark.