Since December 13th fell on a Saturday my Sicilian friends and I had the entire day to spend celebrating Saint Lucy. I had only lived in Palermo for two months and didn’t quite know what we were celebrating on this feast day, but they informed me that it was traditional to abstain from bread and pasta, and therefore eat rice.
In Sicily this can only mean one thing: devouring arancini.
Originally from Syracuse, Sicily, St Lucy was a martyr in the 4th century. And while much of her life and death is swamped in legend, the story goes that Lucy and her mother went to pray at the tomb of another famous Sicilian martyr, St Agatha. They were hoping for a special blessing for Lucy’s mother as she was suffering from a hemorrhage. Once healed, Lucy promised herself to Christ. When news of the miracle reached the pagan governor Paschasius, he immediately summoned her for interrogation. As Lucy insisted on preserving her Christian values and beliefs, Paschasius became angry and insisted she make a pagan sacrifice. Since she refused, he had her put to death.
So how does this story of martyrdom lead the people of Palermo to eat rice on the feast of St Lucy?
Hundreds of years after Lucy’s death, in 1646, the people of Palermo were suffering from a famine. On May 13th a dove was seen flying into the city’s cathedral. As it landed on the bishop’s chair a voice was heard, announcing the arrival of a shipment of grain in the harbor. The voice was believed to be that of St Lucy’s and thus the people decided to set a feast, boiling the grain and dressing it with olive oil. In memory of this miracle, the Church calls for fasting and abstinence from eating bread and pasta.
On this day Palermitani recite the phrase: “Santa Lucia, vulissi pani, pani unn’ aiu e accussi mi staiu” (“St Lucy, I wanted bread, but when there was no bread, and so I was forced to fast”). And so the people of Palermo commemorate this occasion by ‘fasting’, as the phrase goes. Instead they ‘feast’ on rice.
On that December afternoon in 2008 my friends and I went from place to place sampling the different flavored arancini prepared for the feast day. On a normal day in Palermo you can choose from an arancino al ragù which, as the name implies, has a meat and pea ragù center and its saffron rice takes on a conical shape. There is also the arancino al burro, oblong in form, which has a molten core of prosciutto cotto (boiled ham) and mozzarella.
For this celebration there were a myriad of choices: artichokes, pistachio, mushroom, eggplant, fennel, (all specialties in Sicilian cooking)… even a sweet one covered in grainy sugar, filled with Nutella.
While only Palermitani celebrate the feast of St Lucy this way, arancini (or arancine, depending on which part of Sicily you are from) are eaten all year round as one of the most famous Sicilian specialties. On the east coast of Sicily the word is masculine (arancini) and on the west coast they go by arancine, using the feminine noun. In Palermo the rice is seasoned with saffron, in Catania the rice is plain. The term, according to a 19th-century Sicilian dictionary, originally came from the word “arancinu” which is masculine.
St Lucy is also celebrated in many other parts of the world. Sweden has a celebration every year which is a festival of lights, since it used to fall on the Winter Solstice. The name Lucy is associated with light itself, as it is very similar to the Latin, lux. In Scandinavia the winters are long and dark, this celebration brings hope for the coming of longer days.
In Sweden this day also marks the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Each community holds a procession in which a young girl wears a crown of white candles and a pink silk stole, representing her martyrdom. During the procession, the girl, who is often blonde, carries spiced wine along with saffron buns and ginger biscuits.
How do you celebrate the feast of St Lucy? (post your comments below)
Elizabeth Simari teaches Italian culinary history and wine seminars at American universities across Rome. Also a sommelier, journalist and translator, she can often be found in the kitchen with a pile of Italian cookbooks and magazines, replicating traditional recipes or discovering little-known indigenous grapes at an enoteca in the Eternal City.