Throughout Scandinavia but in Sweden most of all, Lucia is celebrated on 13 December. One of the most relished dates in the Swedish calendar, marking the start of the Christmas festivities, the celebration brings together old pagan and Christian traditions.
Under the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC and thereafter followed across Europe, the winter solstice – the shortest day and longest night of the year – occurred around 13 December. The date became consolidated in Sweden as the occasion for night-long revelry. According to folklore, evil forces were especially prevalent in the darkness of the long night, so it was customary to stay awake, eating and drinking until the rise of the sun the following morning. Swedes believed that fervent celebrations on 13 December would ensure for them a light and otherwise prosperous winter.
By the 1400s, Swedes used 13 December as the day to slaughter the Christmas pig. The date was particularly welcomed by farmers, for whom it meant the end of the year’s most onerous work, and it remained popular in succeeding centuries, slowly spreading from the west of Sweden to encompass the breadth of the country. Children increasingly joined in with the gaiety by visiting from house to house to singing songs.
The Gregorian calendar was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, but it wasn’t adopted in Sweden until 1753. This pushed the winter solstice back around eight days, to its current date between 21 and 22 December. But by this point in time the practise of celebrating 13 December was already well entrenched; and the date had another justification, as the Feast of Saint Lucia.
Lucia of Syracuse, otherwise known as Saint Lucy, was a Christian martyr who died during the Diocletianic Persecution: the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. According to the story around her life, she was a devout woman who gave her riches to the poor, and having consecrated her virginity to God, refused to marry a pagan nobleman. There followed an attempt to take her to a brothel, then to set her on fire, and finally she was struck by a spear, but Lucia only died after she had been given the Christian sacrament.
Lucia’s death came in 304 AD. Her story reached Sweden gradually, from Sicily via England and Germany. As ‘Lucia’ shares its root with the Latin word ‘lux’, which means light, and as the Feast of Saint Lucia coincided with the winter solstice, this only emphasised 13 December as the Swedish festival of light. Lucia remained one of the few saints to have their feast day celebrated in Protestant countries after the Reformation.
The extent of the link between the modern Swedish Lucia celebration and the story of Lucia of Syracuse, and the precise spread of the festivities from their origins in the west of Sweden, are both topics which continue to stir debate. But by the early decades of the twentieth century, the celebration as it exists today was taking shape.
The traditional Neapolitan song ‘Santa Lucia’, which had been transcribed by Teodoro Cottrau in 1849, was brought to Sweden a few years later by Gunnar Wennerberg. Girls were already marking the festivity around the home by wearing candle-lit wreaths upon their heads, and white gowns with red sashes. But public processions became commonplace after the Stockholmstidningen crowned a Lucia in 1927. The celebration began to spread to parts of Finland, Norway, and Denmark.
Today a Lucia is elected in every school, as well as many towns and workplaces. Often still going to the tallest blonde girl present, she will be flanked on either side and behind by other girls in white, holding candles, and sometimes arranged according to height. Boys can also take part in the procession, dressed in white with cone-shaped, star covered hats, as Santa’s elves, or as gingerbread men.
And amid the processions and songs, no Lucia is complete without mulled wine, gingerbread, and lussekatter: saffron buns baked in the shape of the letter S, with raisins in the middle of each swirl. Swedes will bake these by the dozen, starting anytime towards the end of November.
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For the buns (makes around 30):
- 300g butter
- 12 dl milk
- 2g saffron
- 2 dl sugar
- 100g fresh yeast
- 2 eggs
- pinch of salt
- 25-30 dl plain flour
- 2 eggs
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- Melt the butter in a saucepan or any other implement of your choice, add the milk, and allow the mixture to cool before transferring to a bowl.
- Grind in a mortar and pestle or otherwise mix together the saffron with some of the sugar. Add this and the yeast to the mixture of butter and milk.
- Now add the eggs, salt, the rest of the sugar, and gradually the flour, working and kneading the mixture into a smooth dough.
- Allow the dough to rise under a towel or plastic wrap for about 45 minutes.
- Cut, roll, and shape the dough into approximately 30 buns, each in the shape of the letter S, placing the buns on parchment paper.
- Let the shaped buns rise, for another 30 or so minutes.
- While waiting for the buns, set the oven to 200C.
- Before baking, brush the buns with lightly beaten egg and press a raisin into each swirl: two raisins to each bun.
- Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes.
- Allow the buns to cool slightly before gorging yourself. Enjoy while drinking milk or mulled wine and singing ‘Santa Lucia’ or other Swedish carol songs.