Did you know today is St. Lucia’s Day? Every December 13th in Sweden, the arrival of St. Lucia is celebrated with a feast. I learned about St. Lucia’s last winter, in 2018, when visiting the American Swedish Institute at the Turnblad Mansion in Minneapolis. We attended a live youth choir performance and thoroughly enjoyed the sweet melodies of the songs sung during the St. Lucia procession. It is difficult to do justice to the beauty of the music as well as the poignancy of the performance. Somehow, the traditional lyrics in both Swedish and English had the power to transport us back many centuries to Scandinavia, and these melodies distilled the essence of the holiday. The music was so hauntingly beautiful that I couldn’t help but be drawn to learning about St. Lucia, which is why I’ll be writing about it in my post today. If you just want the recipe for the lussebullar or St. Lucia buns, the saffron-scented buns served on this holiday, feel free to scroll down and skip ahead. If you’re curious about St. Lucia’s Day, read on!
I am not Catholic, and I was not raised Catholic, so to be drawn to the figure of a saint was an unexpected reaction. It completely captured me and, fascinated, I read a book by Lena Kättström Höök. I wanted to know everything that could possibly be known about Lucia. After all, the Lucia celebration has, to this day, a prominent position in many countries, and the fact that it has remained so in our modern secular times is really intriguing. Here in Minnesota, the ASI celebrates St. Lucia’s (or Sankta Lucia) every year on the day of and the weekend following the saint’s holiday. They have a variety of choir performances and events. The museum has done an amazing job at capturing the magic of the holiday, as well as giving kids and teenagers the opportunity to learn language and music instruction through their seasonal choir rehearsal. The St. Lucia procession at the ASI features a girl with flowing long hair down her back, dressed in a white gown and carrying a crown of candles on her head, walking solemnly. She is followed by a procession of maids and star boys, also in white, and sometimes a few elves. The whole youth procession carries lighted candles in their hands and they march forward singing Christmas carols and Lucia songs. When the performance is over, they parade out the same way they came in, usually in dim light to mark the conclusion of the event. I love this event so much that attending the St. Lucia choir performance in Minneapolis has become one of my traditions for the holiday season.
In Sweden nowadays, the Lucia procession looks much like the one at ASI and is held at schools, hospitals, workplaces, churches, and many private homes, including the televised national procession. These elements date from the early to mid-20th Century, but funnily enough, the origins of the Lucia celebration are much older than that.
The tradition of St. Lucia has multiple origins across time that converge into the series of celebrations on December 13th as we know them today. The custom is complex, with many different roots, so I will share three different origin stories. The oldest legend is a religious legend, and it is the most widespread in Europe. Lucia was a wealthy and devout Christian who lived in Sicily at the end of the 3rd Century. At the time, being a Christian was against the law, so when her faith was discovered, she was sentenced to death by the Roman government and was executed on December 13, 304, which became known as St. Lucia’s Day. She was canonized in the 5th Century, and St. Lucia’s Day spread from Italy to other places in Europe.
A second origin, from western Sweden, arose some time in the second half of the 19th Century. Lusse långnatt (Long Lucia Night) was observed the old night of the winter solstice, which was when the winter solstice was dated by the medieval Swedish calendar before it changed to the Gregorian calendar in 1753. Under the old calendar, December 13 was the winter solstice, considered the shortest day of the year, the longest night of the winter, and the end of the autumn work season. Pork was often prepared on this day to celebrate the end of the harvest, with a celebratory party that marked the beginning of the Advent fast before Christmas. Switching to the Gregorian calendar meant that 11 days were omitted from the medieval calendar, so the winter solstice was moved to December 21, but despite the calendar reform, the custom continued that the night was longest on St. Lucia Day.
Since harvesting and threshing had to be finished by the winter solstice, the barns and farmhouses were filled with food and drink in preparation for Christmas. A small part of the harvest was saved for a symbolic final threshing performed the morning of St. Lucia’s Day. This gave St. Lucia’s Day the character of a work feast, with people getting up extra early on St. Lucia’s Day. Eating copiously on Lucia Night was a sign that one would not be without food during the winter or the next year. All this meant that Lucia was at once the night of the old winter solstice and also included elements of post-harvest feasting, and medieval pre-fast celebrations. An hour or so after midnight, people started celebrating Lucia’s Day with lussebiten: a small breakfast of cheese, bread and bacon, washed down with beer and spirits. People would go back to sleep for a short while and wake up again after a few hours for a series of different breakfasts. All of these breakfast feasts featured samples of the food that had been prepared for Christmas, such as sausage, hash, cheese, bread, pudding, and drinks like mulled wine or aquavit. In the 1880s, coffee became included among the drinks too. The animals on the farm were also given special Lucia food, often by the mistress of the household. This was because in the 19th Century, the majority of Sweden’s population mostly worked in agriculture, and animals on the farm lived close to the people; their survival was a matter of life and death. The cattle got fine hay; the horse could be given oats; the dog and cat would be indulged with tasty tidbits from the kitchen.
A third origin comes from Italy, and is perhaps the most touching story of them all. The legend tells of how a woman named Lucia appeared as a figure of light on a ship sailing near the coastline during a time of severe famine in the land. With the ship, the shining Lucia sailed from shore to shore, bringing buns, beer, pork, and other goods to those in need. Symbolically, the name Lucia means light. In this way, she represents a figure of light in winter, at the time when the days are at their shortest and the nights are at their longest; she also represents abundance, provision, and generosity.
Some say that as early as the 10th Century, the popularity of Lucia spread to other parts of Europe to help spread the faith. Much later, in 12th Century Sweden, church holidays were instituted by the Pope, and in western Sweden, St. Lucia’s Day became a folk custom with a major feast followed by a fast. Lucia is noted on the Swedish calendar as early as 1470. The tradition survived the Reformation under King Gustav Vasa in the 16th Century, and although Protestantism has neither fasts nor saints, the custom evolved and survived. Just like the story originated in Italy, so does its music. The best known tune to the Lucia song comes from an Italian song about a nocturnal boat trip by starlight, written by the Neapolitan Teodoro Cottrau. The poet, composer, and politician Gunnar Wennerberg heard the song during a tour of Italy in 1852 and brought the song to Sweden, where it adopted Swedish lyrics and became associated with the Swedish Lucia tradition.
Surprisingly, Lucia celebrations were still uncommon in much of Sweden up until the 20th Century. The custom was gradually introduced in social clubs, churches, and schools by people who had come from western Sweden and knew how the ceremony was organized. The custom changed from morning to evening and from being held in homes to being held in public places. The celebrations gained momentum in the 1920s and 1930s when more and more organizations joined the practice and it became a welcome element in the Christmas parties they arranged, including a concert with Christmas songs, a procession, and Lucia buns served with coffee. Oftentimes the events were used to collect money for charity. In 1927, one of the newspapers in Stockholm held a contest to cast St. Lucia as part of a large event to represent the city and lead an official procession featuring the progress of electric lighting in Stockholm. The procession was headed by torchbearers, followed by an orchestra, star boys carrying large electric stars, and Lucia and bridesmaids riding horses. It attracted 50,000 spectators! Lucia parties and dinners followed the procession. It was such a success, that afterwards, the event became firmly cemented and other newspapers around Sweden caught on, with each town selecting a Lucia from their grade school classes. A town’s Lucia is picked by a public vote on the candidates presented in the local newspaper. There is a ceremony where Lucia is crowned and a prominent person is usually selected to light the candles on the crown. Lucia and her attendants visit hospitals and are part of charity collections, and sometimes there is a Lucia Ball held at hotels or universities nearby. Additionally, a national concert and program is aired on Swedish TV every year, featuring the nationally-selected Lucia. I have included a link to a portion of the televised program from the Lucia event in 2015.
In the United States, the Lucia celebrations are generally an expression of Swedish traditions, held among descendants of immigrants. Swedish American associations started holding Lucia parties as early as the 1920s in New York and Minnesota. Here, the legends are emphasized even more than in Sweden, and the celebration is accompanied by a smorgasbord, folk dancing, Swedish products, crafts, and music. The events at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis do an outstanding job carrying this out, portraying the tradition as old and authentic, and Lucia as the symbol of kindness and the triumph of light over darkness.
St. Lucia’s Day was introduced to Denmark in 1944 as a silent protest against German occupation, spreading light in a time of darkness; and to Norway in the 1950s by Swedish immigrants. Other countries that started to celebrate St. Lucia in the 20th Century are Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
One of the beloved things about St. Lucia is that it is a tradition that changes identity over time, taking a new shape to adapt to the times and culture. From boisterous and comical, to serious and solemn, the tradition has fluctuated; it is not fixed and uniform, it is flexible and changing, and that versatility has allowed it to survive many centuries. It unites many people, many countries, and many cultures over a span of several centuries in its celebration of light triumphing over darkness. I suspect that if the tradition had been rigid, it would have disappeared a long time ago, and we would have missed out on wonderful music, feasting, and also this bun recipe!
Lucia buns are an iconic symbol of the holiday. They make their appearance in Swedish bakeries the first weekend of Advent, and they are sold throughout December. The recipe for the sweet yeast bread dough itself comes from Holland and northern Germany and was exported to Sweden by the Dutch in the 17th Century. It makes buns that are soft and buttery. In Sweden, the buns are coiled into an inverted S-shape, with two raisins, one on each end, and because it resembles a cat curled up on itself, they are popularly known as lussekatter. The lussekatter are saffron-scented, reflecting Scandinavians’ long history with the worldwide spice trade. No one knows for sure how or why saffron became incorporated into the recipe. It is curious because saffron is the most expensive spice on earth, so not everybody could have afforded it. It is possible that saffron was added to the bun recipe to tint the bread a bright yellow, to symbolize Lucia’s light, and to offer a warm comforting snack when the daylight hours become so short in the winter.
So if you’re feeling up to adding St. Lucia’s Day to your list of holiday traditions, don’t be shy and try out the recipe here below! Most traditional Swedish recipes for lussebullar or lussekatter are made with quark, a type of German fresh cheese that is drier and grainier than cream cheese. Quark can be hard to come by in the United States, even in a place with as many traditional German foods as Minnesota: you can find it at Lunds, Whole Foods, or specialty cheese stores. I developed a different recipe that uses Icelandic yogurt instead. Siggi’s is a widely-available, popular Icelandic yogurt carried in most grocery stores. The dough should be springy and soft, so make sure that you don’t add too much flour to it. Otherwise, your buns will be rather tough. Lastly, twisting the buns into an inverted S-shape is so easy! The geometric shape is truly beautiful and cute, and it makes these bright gold buns very special. If you’re feeling particularly creative, you could arrange each individual S-shaped bun into a crown for Lucia: you can place the buns in a circle, as I showed in the picture above, with 1/4 inch gap between each bun to allow room for their growth in the oven. I omitted it, but if you want, you can sprinkle them with Swedish pearl sugar.
I can’t think of anything nicer than to wake up to a plate of these airy, soft, slightly sweet saffron-scented buns! Because of the saffron ingredient, Lucia buns dry out very quickly, so it is best to consume them warm, fresh from the oven, or on the same day. If you want to store some of the buns you made, you should cover them with a tea towel until cooled and then freeze them. Happy St. Lucia’s, and may your bright days outnumber your dark ones!
Prep time: 60 min.
Cook Time: 15 min.
- ¾ cup whole milk
- 0.018 oz saffron threads
- 4 tsp (16 g) dry yeast
- 1/3 cup sugar + 1 tbsp sugar, divided
- 1/3 cup quark
- 2 ¼ to 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp beaten egg
- pearl sugar
- Grind the saffron. If you have one, use a mortar and pestle. If you haven’t got one, no worries! You can use a bowl and the rounded end of a spoon. Set the ground saffron aside.
- Warm the milk on the stovetop.
- Place the ground saffron in the milk and let cool.
- Place the dry yeast and 2 tbsp sugar in a small bowl.
- Add the milk to the yeast and sugar. Make sure it is not boiling, no more than 98°F. If the milk is too hot, it will kill the yeast. Mix until dissolved.
- Let the yeast rise.
- In a medium bowl, mix egg and yogurt. Add the yeast.
- Add 1 cup flour to the mixture.
- Add all the butter to the mixture and knead well.
- Add remaining flour until the dough comes together, but is not too tough. The dough should be springy.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Rest for 40 minutes to let the dough rise.
- Transfer the dough to a floured work surface.
- Knead well, then cut into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a long, thin roll of about 8 inches. Twist the ends back on themselves in opposite directions to create the inverted S-shape.
- Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and place the buns on the paper. Brush each bun with the egg wash, then place two raisins in each bun, in the center of each swirl.
- Bake for 15 minutes or until golden.