December 13th is a very special day in some parts of Italy, a day that children eagerly await for weeks: it's Santa Lucia, in which Saint Lucy brings gifts to every home, in a pretty similar fashion to what Saint Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus) does.
Santa Lucia is an important Saint in European culture and not just in Catholic countries: many places from Sweden to Spain hold some sort of celebration in her honour. Lucia was originally from Siracusa, Sicily: there she was executed with other Christians under Diocletian, after having been blinded. She became therefore the patron Saint of eyes, and of the blind. She was represented by many famous artists through the centuries, and plays an important role in Dante's Comedy.
Why then does she bring gifts to children? The story goes that in fair Verona, back in the early twelve hundreds on a particularly freezing winter, a terrible eye illness spread particularly amongst the little ones in a vastly epidemic form. The good people of Verona were especially devout of Santa Lucia (whose body rests in Venice, not too far away), therefore on December 13th they decided to have a barefoot procession from the Adige river to the church the Saint had in Piazza Bra, right next to the roman Arena. The children were cold and not too enthusiastic about joining the pilgrimage; so the parents, in order to convince them, explained that if they did, Santa Lucia would have brought many gifts to their homes. So the children agreed, the disease was gone, Santa Lucia brought gifts and she has brought them ever since. The tradition spread around the North East during the Venetian Republic, where nowadays every child arranges some food on a plate for Santa Lucia, her little donkey and her helper in front of the house door. Some major culinary traditions and typical markets accompany this holiday in many different areas: like the market in the picture, in Piazza Bra in Verona... where it all began. And the children of Verona, Brescia, Bergamo and other Italian cities keep getting their presents, even the ones that grew up and don't live there anymore, because Santa Lucia keeps her promise. Only now she brings us less toys, and more bottles of wine.