Although not a public holiday in Scandinavia, this day is celebrated each year where children dress in all white, wear headgear with live candles and snack on the famous and delicious saffron buns called “lussekatter”. How and why did this day come to be?
St. Lucia is one of seven women, aside from Virgin Mary, who consecrated her virginity to God and refused to marry a pagan. She was born into a wealthy household, but denounced her fortune to devote her life to God. Her pagan groom denounced her as a Christian to the governor of Syracuse, Sicily (at this time Christians were chased and prosecuted). When they were unable to move her (her body was so filled with the Holy Spirit that she was stiff and heavy as a mountain) or burn her, the guards gouged her eyes out with a fork. This could be why we see a raisin in the saffron buns, reminiscent of an eye. In another version, Lucy was admired by an undesirable suitor for her beautiful eyes, so she tore them out to be left alone and devote her life to God. As thanks, God gave her a pair of even more beautiful eyes. In paintings, St. Lucia is often seen holding her eyes on a golden plate.
Santa Lucia, as a result, is the saint of light, as well as the patron saint of the blind.
St. Lucia is one of the few saints celebrated in Scandinavia. In Sweden it was believed that celebrating St. Lucia day will help get through the long winter days with enough light.
How does a Catholic saint end up being celebrated in protestant Scandinavia? Sweden was the first country observing St. Lucia, and the day was registered in the calendar as early as 1470, when in fact Sweden was also Catholic. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Norway, Finland and Denmark adopted the Lucia day. The tradition of the Lussi bride came from Germany, where it was common to dress up children in white holding candles, reminiscent of baby Jesus. This is why children today still dress in white gowns on this day, holding glowing candles. The candles placed above their heads is a symbol of the halo above Lucia’ head.
In Sweden the name Lucia was also associated with the devil, Lucifer. One legend tells of Lucia being Adam’s first wife, who consorted with the devil and their descendants formed an evil race in the underworld. The belief was that if you didn’t keep your children at home the night before Christmas, they risked being snatched by Lucia. December 13th was thought to be the shortest day and the longest, darkest night of the year. The night was filled with witches and other evil forces, and the animals were able to speak to one another this night. The lussekatter were called “djavulskatter” (devil’s cats) and the s-shaped buns were thought to resemble a cat curled up. As we see, there are several popular tales around this day!
It is unclear how and why the making of lussekatter got started but the tradition have been in existence for centuries. One theory tells of Lucia giving lussekatter to children to protect them from evil demons. Apparently the golden saffron color of the baked goods was thought to scare the demons away. Another story describes Lucia coming to Sweden during a period of hunger, giving the children sweet, baked goods and saving them from death. Regardless of which tale is “true”, we can all agree that lussekatter are delicious and we look forward to every December 13th when we can enjoy them with some gløgg (mulled wine), coffee and gingerbread cookies. Here’s a great recipe that will hopefully tempt you to try these delicacies out!
2 sticks of unsalted butter
2 ½ cups whole milk
1 gram saffron (1/2 oz)
1 sugar cube
2 oz /50 g fresh yeast
½ tsp salt
¾ cup granulated sugar
8 cups all purpose flour
½ cup raisins
Preheat oven to 450F.
Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover them with hot water. This will plump the up and help avoid them from turning rock hard when baked in the oven.
Melt the butter in a small pot, pour the milk into the butter and heat up until about 98F (37C). Grind up the saffron with the sugar cube in a mortar and pestle (the sugar cube aids in dissolving the saffron). Add the saffron to the milk mixture (avoid using a wooden spoon when mixing as some of the flavor can be absorbed into the spoon and you want all the flavor to go into the liquid mix). Break one egg, whisk it and add to the milk mixture). Crumble the yeast into the liquid and stir until dissolved. Add salt, sugar and most of the flour. Knead until you get a sticky, firm dough, not overdoing the flour. Let the dough rise in a warm spot in a slightly oiled bowl covered with a kitchen towel until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes or so.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until smooth, adding flour if necessary. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Work the dough into about 8” long ‘snakes’, shaping them into S-shapes, tucking the ends in well. Place on baking sheet and continue until you have all the pieces shaped. Let rise again under a kithen towel for another 30-45 minutes.
Drain the raisins and place one raising in the center of each “curve” in the s-shaped buns. Whisk the last egg and brush the tops of the buns. Bake in the center of oven about 5-10 minutes until lightly browned. Best when served immediately as the buns dry out quickly, so make sure to place them in an airtight container.