Of saffron buns and bringers of light

On 13 December, Swedes get up at the crack of dawn to celebrate the festival of  Santa Lucia: schools, shopping centres, the streets — all are full of young girls with fire in their hair, who go round singing beautiful Lucia songs together with an entourage of handmaidens and Santa’s helpers.

The girl who is Lucia has real burning candles in her hair as she leads a procession of young women (and even boys these days, of course) bearing candles. They sing Lucia songs in Swedish – but they originate from the Neapolitan song of Sankta Lucia, which the Scandinavian tradition is based on.

There are several different legends about Lucia. Everyone agrees that she was a young girl living in Sicily in about 300 AD. Some say that she hid persecuted Christians and was burned at the stake for helping them. However, the fire refused to burn her and she ended up having her throat slit. Yes – these legends are a bit gory!

Other stories say that she fell in love with a young man who spurned her. So, in a foolish act of unrequited love, she is said to have cut out her own eyes and sent them to the man she loved. A rather strange way of declaring undying love! But as they say, love is blind…

A more likely story is that in the Julian calendar, December 13th was the longest night of the year and people in the olden days believed that evil spirits were abroad then, so they burned lots of fires to keep the spirits at bay.

Whatever the origins, this Italian saint is now the Scandinavian symbolic figure: the bringer of light. It’s all about bringing light to the darkness of winter, of bringing warmth into the cold.

Saffron buns (but not made by me!)

And, of course, it’s all about food and drink! This is the time when Swedes go mad in the kitchen and bake up storms of gingerbread and Lucia buns – more commonly called, Lucia cats (lussekatter in Swedish). These are saffron-flavoured sweet buns shaped like curled up cats with raisins for eyes. You eat these  morning, noon and night – washed down with coffee or glögg. Glögg is like mulled wine spiced with cinammon sticks and cloves. You put raisins and almonds in a small cup and then fill up with glögg – and drink. You then use dainty little teaspoons to eat up the wine-soaked raisins and almonds…

And, now – if you’ll excuse me. I can hear a Lucia cat meowing to me from the kitchen!

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42 thoughts on “Of saffron buns and bringers of light

  1. Oh, Ladyfi! what a delightful post for the day! I loved reading all the different legends and about how and what is celebrated in Sweden! Your photos are delightful and I’m longing for a saffron bun! Thanks so much for sharing this!

    Have a lovely week!

    Sylvia

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  2. Lovely festival. The best legends are gory – like being crucified isn’t? Love all the different Xmas traditions in various countries and the yummy food. Never had a saffron cat bun. I don’t see Oscar with candles on his head.

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  3. Just last weekend, I was invited to a glögg fest at a colleague’s home. His partner is from Sweden and he lived there for a few years as well. The glögg was much more full and spicy than our German Glühwien. I kept to the children’s glögg, after having just half a cup of the real stuff. The lussekatters were my favorite of all the lovely delicacies served. Simply perfect. Do enjoy the festivities. They sound magical.

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  4. Okay, am I ABSOLUTELY demented that I burst forth laughing at your line, “But as they say, love is blind?!!” Oh Lady Fi…..don’t say things like that and make me feel like such a despot. And excuse me, but that bread looks decidedly like eyeballs!

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  5. I don’t want to nit pick here but the fire refused to burn her but the knife didn’t refuse to cut her throat? Was the knife having a bad day or just rebelling? Those buns look nice, even if you have to wake up at the crack of dawn and sing to get one!

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  6. We celebrated St. Lucia in barnehage on Friday and I made lusekatter for the first time! Interesting, I didn’t try one though…something about yellow coloured baked goods…ugh….but it’s a beautiful celebration, I love when the kids dress in St. Lucia costumes and carry candles…it’s peaceful…

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  7. I used to read about this many years ago in the US but it is awesome to know a “real life” family that celebrates it!!!

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  8. I’ve never really understood the tradition until you explained different versions. I thought the raisins in the buns were to represent the eyes she cut out. Just the way my mind works after reading. Thanks.

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  9. The stories are a bit gruesome. I hope the young girl who has lit candles in her hair is immune to burning! The procession is quite beautiful, though.
    The Lucia buns look delicious. I wouldn’t mind having one of those.

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  10. Love the tradition. Strangely, I head about it for the first time only this year from a Norwegian friend who I have known for almost five years, and now you have blogged about it too. Fantastic!

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  11. The Swedish school is located here in Waterloo and each year everybody is invited to watch and have some Glögg which is more or less the same as the German Glühwein.

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  12. What an interesting post! I sure hope the last theory is correct about Lucia and she didn’t meet a horrible death. I loved reading about having real lit candles in her hair. I’m not sure you could even do that here.
    And thanks for sharing the food with us.
    It’s so wonderful to read about celebrations elsewhere.

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  13. ….thanks so much for stepping in my tuscany!
    I’d love to try this recipe of this christmas “dolce”…I have to, because it must be so delicious!!!!
    have a wonderful week!
    ciao elvira

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  14. I’ve heard about this festival but never seen scenes from it or heard about the legend behind it. It sounds wonderful! And as for the glögg and the lussekatter – you can count me in!
    Have a good weekend,
    Janice.

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