Yesterday the feast of Sankta Lucia was celebrated all over Sweden.
It might seem a bit odd that the feast of a Sicilian Catholic saint should be so important in Sweden.
Perhaps the explanation lies in that the feast falls on 13 of December right in the middle of Advent.
The name Lucia derives from lux lucis which means light.
By mid December all the northern hemisphere is fast approaching the shortest day of the year (21st December). Now, I have never been to Sweden but I gather it must be pretty dark and cold over there now.
So it makes sense that, allegorically at least, the Swedes should celebrate a saint that is the “carrier of light”.
Even if the Lucia celebration as we know it is only a couple of hundred years old, the tradition of celebrating the end of the darkest period of the year goes a long way back, to before Christianity. According to the Julian calendar (used until 1753), the winter solstice was on the 13th, so the Lucia night was the longest of the year. It was believed that on this night, wicked powers may be on the prowl so it was best to stay awake and avoid the Lord of Darkness (Lucifer). The end of the longest night and the return of light could then be celebrated.
Sankta Lucia’s association with light does not only come from the etymology of her name.
In a somewhat gory aspect of the story, according to medieval accounts, Sankta Lucia’s eyes are gouged out prior to her execution. In art, her eyes sometimes appear on a plate that she is holding. For this reason, I imagine, she is also the patron saint of the blind.
Alongside Midsummer, the Lucia celebrations represent one of the foremost cultural traditions in Sweden, with their clear reference to life in the peasant communities of old: darkness and light, cold and warmth.
Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters.
December 13th is also known as the Festival of Lights.
There are several versions of the legend of Santa Lucia but the oldest legend dates back to 304 A.D. A young woman from a noble Christian family named Lucia had dedicated her life to helping those in poverty. During a terrible famine in Sweden this woman is said to have appeared on the lake in a large white ship bearing food and clothing for the starving population. She was dressed in all white with a wreath of twigs lit up upon her head. It is said that later she was persecuted for being a Christian and burned at the stake. Her body would not burn and she glowed with light as she died. She became a Christian martyr and from then on was known as the great patron saint of light.
In old tradition every village would choose a young woman to represent Santa Lucia. On the morning of December 13th wearing a white dress with a red sash and a wreath of lingonberry twigs with seven candles set upon it she would go from farm to farm bringing baked goods and return home before dawn.
In Sweden, this day is celebrated by processions headed by girls chosen to be Lusse Brud (the Bride of Lucia) who wear a crown of candles in her head and leads a procession of girls and boys (tomtar or stjärngossar while singing the Sakta Lucia song as they march along.
The girls chosen to be Lucias do not represent the saint but an angel and the crown of candles, although they are said to remind Swedes of how Sankta Lucia lit up the catacombs to rise the spirits of the Christians hiding there in pre-Christian days, are actually intended to depict a halo as there is no record that Sankta Lucia ever illuminated the hideaways in such a manner.
(Now may be it’s just me but I couldn’t help noticing… don’t the tomtar seem totally out of Hogwarts?)
One of the most intriguing aspects of all is the saffron-flavoured buns that are baked on this day and are called Lussekatter or Lussebullar in Swedish (Lucia’s cats or Lucia’s buns respectively.)
These buns are traditionally served before sunrise by the eldest daughter to her mum on Sakta Lucia’s day in Swedish households. She is, according to tradition, dressed in a white robe, with a red sash and has the crown of candles on her head. The buns take a bit of time to make but they can be made ahead of time and frozen once baked.
Despite my researching all over the internet and in several books, I have been unable to find out why these buns are associated with this particular festivity or what the symbology is. Maybe the saffron is supossed to symbolise the light due to the golden colour it renders to the dough? All I know is that some of the shapes given to Lussekatter are cats (hence the name as katter in Swedish means “cats”) or even a crown in which sometimes candles are inserted and it is intended to represent the crown of candles that the Lucias sport on their heads.
Yesterday, at work, I made some Lussekatter. It was my first time ever baking them and, all things considered, I am quite happy with the result. However, I did not bake them before dawn!
Because I had not made them before I think I went easy on the saffron. Far too easy I am afraid. The recipe called for a pinch of saffron and that’s exactly what I put. The buns were not as yellow as I thought they would be but then, once baked, you could really smell the saffron in them.
150 g butter
pinch of saffron (crushed in the pestle and mortar with a pinch of sugar)
1,5 dl sugar
0,5 tsp. salt
around 17dl plain flour
1 egg (for brushing)
raisins (to decorate)
Melt the butter and milk in the microwave until completely liquid. Leave to cool until warm.
Crumble the yeast in a small foil cup. Add very little of the warm butter and milk liquid, just enough to form a gooey paste. Cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm place to ferment.
Meanwhile, add the powdered saffron to the rest of the milk and butter mixture.
Sift together the salt and the flour into a big bowl or onto the worktop and pile up making a hole in the centre.
Once it’s ready and foamy, add the yeast paste to the sifted flour. Gradually add the milk and butter mixture alternating with the sugar and work the dough until smooth, just like when you’re making bread. If necessary, add a little more milk. Shape into a ball and place in a clean bowl. Cover with clingfilm and leave to prove.
Once the dough has doubled in size, take out of the bowl and knead for a couple of minutes to knock back the air.
Using a digital scale, cut into equal portions. Shape each into a sausage first and then roll the ends to form an “S”.
Place on a baking sheet.
Brush with egg and place a raisin on each end.
Cover with a tea towel and leave them to prove for a few more minutes.
Bake for around 15 minutes in a 200C oven.
To release the most flavour and colour from the saffron, let it steep in the hot milk for at least 20 minutes and ideally up to 24 hours. If you are using saffron powder you can skip the steeping.