The feast day of Saint Lucy was the 13 December, which was the shortest day of the year before the Julian calendar was adopted. The English metaphysical poet, John Donne, described it as the “year’s dark midnight”, and now the date of the winter solstice is 21 december. It seems fitting that her feast day should have been seen as a festival of light.
She was a third century saint, who was executed for bringing food and light to hiding Christians in the catacombs of ancient Rome. She brought light and hope to the darkness of fear.
She is an appropriate sponsor of midwinter festivals of rebirth.
I spent the dark solstice in the English midlands, in the flat, wet land where the valley of the River Avon meets the valley of the River Severn, England’s longest river.
The two rivers bring floodwater to the fields and towns along their banks every winter, and, as the hedges disappear under the flood, the water is criss-crossed by black lines of alder and osier.
It is a land of big, cold skies and, at this time of year, a darkness that seeps up from the river land into the burnished sky.
As darkness fell around me on the 21 December, I had a sensation of the dark rising up from the ground and then seeping out from me into the world around, rather than the normal sense of darkness enclosing me, of the night snuffling around me like a fog.
The Abbey at Tewkesbury solidly stands on its low hill by the Avon, the last refuge of land in a watery darkness. Its massive Norman pillars have held up the tracery of the roof for a thousand years, like rows of trees. These trunks say, Here we stand, against water and Heathen!
And, in the silence of centuries, the river sucks everything to the distant sea.