In the dark days of winter, we could all stand to sing a page from the Swedish songbook; in particular, the tradition of Sankta Lucia, a celebration of light meant to ward off the evil spirits of darkness.
Saint Lucy’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Lucy, is celebrated on December 13. This was the shortest day of the year under the ancient Julian calendar, which, starting in 1582, was cast off in favour of the Gregorian calendar with its leap days (full conversion took several centuries, not unlike the metric system).
Lucy, whose name means light, lived around the year 283, and was a martyr persecuted for refusing to renounce Christianity. Some stories involve her gouging out her eyes. For this feat, she is the patron saint of blindness.
In another notable story, Lucy assisted Christians in the catacombs. To leave her hands free for maximum utility, she ingeniously attached candles to her wreath, possibly the first historical use of a headlamp.
The story of Lucy and her crown of candles appealed to the Swedes, who combined it with their own pagan celebration of Jul into the unique Scandinavian Sankta Lucia tradition sometime in the late 1700s.
This particular merging of Christian and pagan traditions remains something of a mystery, but as Sweden’s official website explains, “As is typical with traditions in Sweden, the why became less important than the how.”
Every December 13 begins with a procession led by the figure of Sankta Lucia, a woman or girl dressed in a white robe wearing a crown of candles symbolizing light, and a red sash representing martyrdom or death. She is accompanied by several other girls or women dressed identically, called the tӓrnor, or handmaidens, each carrying a candle.
The figure of Lucia is always female. Sometimes she is elected. The official website explains, “Among the youngest, anyone can be Lucia; as the children get older, the competition will harden.”
However, there are “star boys”, who follow behind wearing conical hats. Sometimes gingerbread figures bring up the rear, possibly a modern addition to boost the numbers. The procession sings traditional Christmas songs, the most prominent being the Swedish version of the Italian folk song “Santa Lucia”.
The participants also carry baskets of Lussekatter, or yellow saffron buns, typically shaped in an S-shape with two spirals at each end centred with raisins. According to the arbiter of all things Swedish — the Ikea website —- the shape derives from ancient patterns that can be traced to jewellery from the Bronze Age (1700-500 BC).
The procession also serves coffee and mulled wine called glögg. The Swedish government website is clear about the necessity of glögg:
“ Make sure you have some plonk on hand for mulled wine. Put it in a pot with some spices then watch it like a hawk so it doesn’t boil, or Lucia won’t be quite as much fun.”
Bengt Petterson, a long-time Whitehorse resident who grew up in the small town of Österbybruk, describes the Sankta Lucia celebration as tradition that has remained relatively unchanged throughout the years.
“ You got up and watched it on television, then went to school, then it was more of that for an hour,” he says. “Later when I worked in the administration, we would go down to the cafeteria and school groups would do it. It’s just a nice tradition that makes you feel good and gives you some time together.”
Although December 13 has passed, there seems no reason why winter solstice can’t be a perfectly good replacement for your own Sankta Lucia celebration. Just remember: only the most experienced celebrants mix mulled wine with open flames.
Be smart and use electric candles.
1 cup melted butter
1/2 tsp. saffron threads, finely crumbled (or 1 tsp. powdered)
1 cup milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 pkg. dry active yeast
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs, well-beaten
1 egg white, to decorate
Raisins or currants, to decorate
Crumble saffron threads into melted butter. Let sit 30 minutes to an hour to intensify flavour.
Heat milk to scalding. Stir in melted butter, sugar, and salt. Pour mixture into mixing bowl and allow cooling until just cool enough to touch. Stir in yeast and let sit for 10 minutes.
Mix 3 1/2 cups flour into liquid. Stir in two well-beaten eggs. Add just enough of the remaining flour to form a soft dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Transfer dough to a large greased bowl and turn to coat. Cover with a clean towel and allow rising until doubled, about 1 hour.
Punch down risen dough. Lightly knead two or three times on a floured surface. Pinch off 2″ balls of dough and roll into snakes. Shape snakes into “S”-shaped buns with spirals. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, cover with the towel again, and allow to rise until doubled (about an hour).
Decorate buns with raisins, brush with egg white. You can also sprinkle with Swedish pearl sugar, a coarse sugar that doesn’t melt in the oven, prior to baking in a preheated 375º oven about 15 minutes, just until brown.
Makes 20 Lussekatter.