I got sent to the Methodist. Nan and Grandad had been C of E, but the church was up on the Top Road, which I would have had to cross to reach it. That would have meant a grown-up going with me, and the whole idea was that no grown up needed to go with me. I could be sent in the care of an older child. There was of course no choice in the matter, and who knows what my parents may have been up to as I sat on my hard wooden pew at the Methodist Chapel, my feet not touching the ground, watching brown condensation dribbling down the faded yellow walls.
Mum and Dad were Agnostics in those days. They were always everything jointly. My father explained that whereas Atheists simply didn’t believe in God, Agnostics might believe in God if God or Jesus or someone were to turn up on the doorstep and ring the bell, so to speak. So that was better. It was open-minded. I didn’t think there was much chance of Jesus ringing our doorbell. I have often puzzled, and still can’t understand why they felt they had to be something, officially. I mean, why not just tell people you don’t believe in all that? Why send away for swatches of brightly-coloured leaflets, solemnly read and inwardly digest them, fill in an application form for membership and send it back?
In later life they became Humanists, also jointly. We had to have a humanist funeral for Dad which meant a lady turned up at the crematorium and delivered an inaccurate mish-mash of the information we had given her on her visit to the house. Afterwards we got the mish-mash in a plastic binder, to keep. It was full of spelling mistakes. The spelling mistakes annoyed me more than anything. More than her bored voice, the icy cold wind outside and the inappropriate winter sunshine streaming through the windows; more than people already queueing outside for the next cremation; flowers being bulldozed into the soil behind a screen of thin, inadequate trees; someone accidentally leaving their raincoat behind and it having to be retrieved; Mum’s refusal to wear black but instead her everyday trousers and some horrid new cardigan she’d bought in Marks & Spencer’s; or My Replacement’s mobile phone going off during one of the musical bits and her not being able to find it in her handbag to turn it off – Colonel Bogie shrilling repetitively over Ella Fitzgerald.
Anyway, wandering far from the point as usual.
What was the point? Ah, yes. St Lucy.
I happened upon this poem by John Donne and it mentioned St Lucy’s Day. It wasn’t perhaps one of his best – a thorny thicket of obscure references and allusions – so I’ll just leave you the link and you can read it if you want to. St Lucy’s Day is coming up shortly, in fact, on the 13th of December. It used to be thought of as the shortest day of the year and the winter solstice. In fact that’s the 12th of December but since there’s only a minute or two of daylight in it, it might just as well be. I’ve always been interested in saints since I was starved of them, rather: at the Methodist we weren’t allowed them. Instead we were served up homely homilies and moral tales with improbably convenient outcomes.
I thought I might at least find out who St Lucy was and why she was a saint.
St Lucy, or Santa Lucia, was a 3rd Century Christian martyr. It is said that she bought food to Christians sheltering in the catacombs. It was dark in this network of underground tombs, so to leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible she wore a wreath around her head, with candles in it. Nowadays in many parts of the world there are ceremonies to commemorate her, and children wear similar wreaths adorned with candles. It sounds lovely but I do worry about the fire risk, and cascading candle-grease.
How did she die, I wondered? I mean, how was she martyred? There are legends around this, none of them pleasant. Lucy had dedicated her virginity to God, but her mother didn’t know this and arranged a marriage. Lucy asked that her dowry, or some part of it, be distributed amongst the poor. When word of this reached her betrothed he denounced her to the Governor of Syracuse, who ordered her to burn a sacrifice in the emperor’s image. She refused and he sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. According to Christian tradition when the guards came for her she could not be moved from the spot, even though they hitched her to a team of oxen. In medieval accounts Lucy’s eyes were removed by the guards just before she was executed. In another account she took out her own eyes so as to render herself repugnant to a potential suitor.
So, her story goes from heroic and romantic to gruesome and ghastly, and mixes fact with fiction and legend, as many a good saint’s story does.
Featured Image: Icon of St Lucy by Raphael St Christian Winters
Above: Saint Lucy, a drawing by Mary MacArthur