Welcome, dear readers, to a very special place: the shortest day, the longest night of the year. Before the Julian calendar was fixed during the Roman Empire, the solstice used to be December 13, and guess whose day it was?
That’s right… St. Lucy! Worshipping the shortest day of the year (which really means worshipping the days getting longer) has been celebrated by human culture since we noticed the yaw of the heavens. Lucy, which means “light,” is supposed to bring back daylight from the impenetrable darkness, a vaguely Promethean myth that is still celebrated in Scandinavian countries today.
Although she was an early Christian saint (read here for her bizarre martyrdom), the conquering Germanic tribes brought her story up north, where she fit in perfectly with the winter solstice parties they were already having. Every village would elect a Saint Lucy, a girl who would wear a crown of candles and roust neighboring families at 4am with saffron bread and coffee on December 21.
St. Lucy is the patron saint of eyesight and the blind, and thus my mom – who suffers from both kinds of macular degeneration – wears her Lucy pendant every day. For her birthday last week (coincidentally 24 hours before St. Lucy’s Night), we took her to see “The Farnsworth Invention,” Aaron Sorkin’s new drama on Broadway. The opening statement? Hank Azaria walks out and says “the only reason you see me right now is because photons are hitting me and bouncing back to your eyeballs.”
The play is about the true inventor of television, and the guileless corporation that stole his idea – flawed but funny, and has great details I’d never known. Apparently the problem that kept Farnsworth from beating the corporations was infuriatingly simple: light. His television worked, but he had to light his subjects so brightly that they’d fry from the heat.
During intermission, I asked my mom when she first saw television, and she said “the first time I saw a TV, I was on it.” She was in a studio singing with her two sisters – a close-harmony outfit like the Andrews Sisters – and watched herself performing in real time. Apparently they had to be lit so harshly they used black lipstick.
My Aunt Marilyn, Joanie, and my mom, circa 1952
While my mom’s macular degeneration is kept under control by cutting-edge drugs and vitamins, she still has to use an external monitor for her laptop that blows up all text and images to huge sizes. Obviously, as a musician it’s way better to have impaired vision than go the Beethoven deaf route, but it certainly doesn’t do you any favors.
So on St. Lucy day, we got our own Lucy in the dreamy, surreal hours before bed, and lit a candle. Like all toddlers, she was mesmerized to be so close to fire, even one so tiny, but still said “I hope Grandma’s eyes get better.”
My mom wrote a great Christmas song many years ago called “Child of Light” about the biblical Christmas story, and while my relationship with Christianity is fraught with peril, I absolutely love the Jesus birth narrative, and always will. Christmas itself is another co-opting of the pagan winter solstice celebration, with Jesus as light-bearer and several other themes: the star, the wheel of rebirth, the claiming of light from darkness.
These things are never very tidy. Saint Lucy’s day is 12/13, the solstice is 12/21, Christmas is 12/25, and the New Year is a week later. The actual weather doesn’t get warmer until the end of January, and the days won’t seem impressively longer until Daylight Saving Time kicks in on March 9 (thanks, Congress!)
But it must have been such a good feeling, back in ancient times, to arrive at the longest day of the year with your family intact, knowing stores will hold, guessing you can make it until the thaw. These days will start their expansion after tonight, the path to those long, languid, lovely afternoons in July that seem like they’ll last forever. With that in mind, I’m taking most of next week off, and like me, I hope you have a great time watching the photons reflecting off your loved ones.
speaking of our Scandinavian ancestors, Lucy (helped) make aebleskivers for Grandma’s birthday