Two quick questions:

(1) What song was recorded by both Enrico Caruso and Elvis Presley?

(2) Why is question (1) especially relevant today?

Answers after the jump.

(1) “Santa Lucia”.

A digitally remastered version of a Caruso recording from 3/20/1916:

And Elvis, from Elvis for Everyone (1965, almost 50 years later):

(2) Today is St. Lucy’s Day.

So you’re asking, how does St. Lucy get into the song? Well, indirectly: the song is about the beauties of the Neapolitan waterfront district, Borgo Santa Lucia, which was named in honor of the saint.

I am beyond being able to judge the musical merits of the song; it’s been a favorite since my childhood and is just so suffused with warm feelings that I can’t look at it dispassionately. In the 3rd or 4th grade my class had a book of folk songs for children, several of which were big hits with us kids, so we asked to sing them again and again, no doubt driving the teacher to distraction: among them, “The Erie Canal”, the Philippine folksong “Don’t You Go to Far Zamboanga”, and “Santa Lucia”. We were taught the first two lines in Italian —

Sul mare luccica l’astro d’argento.
Placida è l’onda, prospero è il vento

(“On the sea glitters the silver star / Gentle the waves, favorable the wind”) and the whole thing in some English translation.

The song has an interesting history, bound up with Italian unification and independence. From Wikipedia:

Santa Lucía es el 13 de Diciembre Santa Lucia is a traditional Neapolitan song. It was transcribed by Teodoro Cottrau (1827–1879) and published by the Cottrau firm, as a “barcarolla”, at Naples in 1849. Cottrau translated it from Napuletano into Italian during the first stage of the Risorgimento, the first Neapolitan song to be given Italian lyrics [so English translations are two languages away from the original]. Its transcriber, who is very often credited as its composer, was the son of the French-born Italian composer and collector of songs Guillaume Louis Cottrau (1797–1847).

The Neapolitan lyrics of “Santa Lucia” celebrate the picturesque waterfront district, Borgo Santa Lucia, in the Bay of Naples, in the invitation of a boatman to take a turn in his boat, to better enjoy the cool of the evening.

And that brings us to Saint Lucy and the day of observance for her, which is celebrated in the shortest days of the winter, celebrated by lighting up the darkness:

Saint Lucia’s Day (sometimes Lucy for short) is the Church feast day dedicated to Saint Lucy and is observed on the 13th of December. Its modern day celebration is generally associated with Sweden and Norway but is also observed in Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Finland, Hungary, Malta, Bosnia, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovakia, Spain and St. Lucia, West Indies. In the United States it is celebrated with cookies on the mantel in states for a large number of people of Scandinavian ancestry, often centered around church events.

In traditional celebrations, Saint Lucy comes as a young woman with lights and sweets. It is one of the few saint days observed in Scandinavia. In some forms, a procession is headed by one girl wearing a crown of candles (or lights), while others in the procession hold only a single candle each. (link)

Diwali has already gone past (last month), and Christmas, with its own candles, is still to come. Now the Hanukkah candles are burning, and here comes the figure of a girl representing St. Lucy, with a crown of candles in her hair — a custom that has always made me profoundly edgy, flame-wary.

But there are sweet breads, in particular saffron bread, and cookies to allay the anxiety. And we seem to get through the occasion every year without setting the world on fire.

The time of darkness is also the time of rebirth, turning the corner. That’s part of the symbolic value of Christmas (something you can appreciate even if your religious beliefs don’t fit the rest of the season). In California, of course, the rebirth comes with the rains, when the golden brown of the grasses on the hills bursts into the yellow-green of new growth. (This renaissance was very early this year, but it’s satisfyingly dramatic whenever it happens.)

And in my little urban garden, along with St. Lucy comes the blooming season of the cymbidium orchids (a stand of patio plants that were gifts from me to Jacques over the years). This year the first appearance was of greenish-yellow flowers, with white ones about to open up, just outside my window. (One after another, the plants will bloom, until it gets hot — early June, usually, when they become foliage plants until winter comes again.)

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