The story of St Lucy

When I was a child there didn’t use to be a street market for Christmas in Bergamo, but there were two other occasions on which a sort of fair was held, and still is to this day. They consisted of stalls set up along the main walking street, the Sentierone (literally the “great path”), for one or two days only. People call them the bancarelle, and as such their appearance in town is tinged by a fleeting character that makes them unique, a chance not to be missed.

One of the two dates is St. Anthony’s day, 19th January, with a small pedlar market that sells mainly smoked or dried chestnuts sown into quaint strings. On that winter morning, the pungent cold in Piazza Dante smells of the smoke of roast chestnuts.

The second appointment is St. Lucy’s day, 13th December. Legend has it that on the eve of her festival, St. Lucy will visit every child’s home, riding her donkey, and will bring them presents or black coal according to whether they were well behaved or not. Children leave a bowl of water and a carrot for the donkey to eat on its long night shift.

In the centre there is a little church dedicated to St. Lucy where children leave their letters. The wish lists are often accompanied by a pledge to behave well or a prayer for someone in need. A wicker basket is placed in front of the glass case that encloses a reclining statue of St. Lucy holding a palm leaf, symbol of martyrdom. It fills to the brink with letters written in the faltering hand of children who have just learned to spell words.

So far, nothing new with respect to similar traditions in other parts of the world. Apart from the fact that St. Lucy is arguably only found in Bergamo, call it Santa Klaus, or Father Christmas, or St. Nicholas, it is always a benign creature that brings presents to children and plays an important role in the myths of childhood.

In my home our parents announced the coming of St. Lucy tinkling a little bell, unbeknownst to us children, that gave a particularly crystalline sound. This night-time chime, which I still remember so well, sent a thrill down my spine and I was elated with expectation until the day came.

Children will eventually find out who St. Lucy really is when they start going to school. They are proud to cross the threshold of childhood into “adulthood” by breaking the secret, while their parents regret that their innocence is gone. There is a divide between those who know who St. Lucy really is, and those who still fumble in the dark of make-believe. The first group eventually discloses the tip to the rest, not without due patronising for being the first ones in the know.

In my case I felt particularly proud to have gained insight into the truth of St. Lucy by my own strength. My brother and I had a sticking blackboard on the French window pane of our bedroom and our mother, about a fortnight before 13th December, started writing messages in coloured chalks that we believed came directly from the saint watching our behaviour in order to decide about the presents. If we had been good boys, the message would be in bright colours, but if we had been naughty, the message would be in brown or black.

At first we were thrilled to receive this sign of close attention by St. Lucy and upon getting up we were eager to read what she had to say. However, one day I woke up a little earlier that usual and with half-closed eyes I caught sight of my mother scribbling on the blackboard. It didn’t take me long to realise what it all meant, even if mummy made a desperate attempt and said that St. Lucy had left her the message for us.

I was 7 that year. Being a grown-up was sometimes measured in terms of the age at which one had become aware of St. Lucy’s secret and in what way. Being told by companions was the most ignominious way, and the later it was, of course, the more embarrassing. Little did we realise that the golden days that we were in such a hurry to leave behind were the most carefree and happy of all our lives, precisely because they fed on dreams.

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