St. Lucy came from the Sicilian city of Syracuse and died in 304 when she was around 21 years old. Not much is known about her aside from the early traditional narratives that describe her in similar terms to the various fourth-century virgin-martyrs who chose purity for Christ’s sake over life. A variety of details from different legends describe specific details from her life.

According to the prevailing legend, St. Lucy’s mother was terminally ill and arranged a marriage to provide for her daughter’s well-being, unaware of her daughter’s plans to live a life of virginity. Seeking a cure, St. Lucy’s mother made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Agatha, a virgin-martyr who died nearby some 50 years previously. St. Agatha came to St. Lucy in a dream and promised to intercede for her ill mother. In exchange, St. Lucy managed to convince her mother to make an offering of their wealth for the good of the poor. Jealous because he thought the offering should be given to him instead, St. Lucy’s betrothed reported her to the local governor. St. Lucy was arrested and ordered to make amends by offering a sacrifice to the emperor, which she refused to do.

The result of St. Lucy’s faithfulness was a death sentence. She was killed ultimately by sword after many other attempts to violate her purity and bring about her death. Later narratives relate that her death was hastened once her eyes were gouged out, while another says she gouged out her own eyes to deter a suitor. For these legends, St. Lucy is remembered as a patroness of those suffering afflictions of the eye, and in art she typically is depicted holding eyes on a platter. Devotion to St. Lucy spread quickly in the early Church, and her popularity saw a peak in the Middle Ages.

St. Lucy’s name is derived from the Latin word for “light,” and her Dec. 13 feast day coincided for centuries with the winter solstice until the reforms of the calendar. In Scandinavian countries, where little daylight is seen in the dark days of December, the people celebrate St. Lucy’s feast with much enthusiasm. Young girls dressed in white deliver sweets while caroling. They wear red sashes to commemorate St. Lucy’s martyrdom, and wreaths of lit candles sit on their head, representing the light of Christ that shone through the holiness and purity of the virgin-saint of Syracuse.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.