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!

For more glimpses into other parts of the world, please visit: My World!

42 responses

  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!



    December 15, 2009 at 06:30

  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.


    December 15, 2009 at 06:52

  3. What a lovely festival, whatever be the legend it is time to celebrate singing these songs.


    December 15, 2009 at 06:59

  4. Oh — that was fun to read! A wonderful festival and lovely that it is still celebrated in the old way.


    December 15, 2009 at 07:22

  5. I’m a huge sweet person and it’s 11pm here and now i’m hungry. I really need to read this stuff in the morning.


    December 15, 2009 at 07:56

  6. lilalia

    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.


    December 15, 2009 at 07:57

  7. 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!


    December 15, 2009 at 08:25

    • I’m glad you got my terribly twisted pun, Robynn!


      December 15, 2009 at 08:48

      • Terribly twisted? Are you kidding? You are a MASTER. Please send me an eyeball bun. Here’s lookin’ at you, kid. 🙂


        December 15, 2009 at 16:39

  8. 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!


    December 15, 2009 at 08:56

  9. Amy

    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…


    December 15, 2009 at 09:54

  10. Great post about Lucia! I really miss the time when I could celebrate Lucia with the kids in school.
    I love the name “saffron cat bun”.


    December 15, 2009 at 10:12

  11. fascinating and the glogg and the buns seem delicious!


    December 15, 2009 at 10:16

  12. Such interesting stories and traditions. Thanks for the glimpse. 🙂 Those curled up cats are tempting.


    December 15, 2009 at 11:42

  13. LadyFi: What an interesting person to honor during this festive season.


    December 15, 2009 at 14:30

  14. We had a Swedish exchange student live with us during Christmas one year, and we did the Santa Lucia tradition. I just remembered that! It was great!


    December 15, 2009 at 16:45

  15. I used to read a book when I was little that had this celebration in it. I always wanted to do it!


    December 15, 2009 at 18:08

  16. kelli

    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!!!


    December 15, 2009 at 18:51

  17. Po

    How do they choose who is Lucia for the day?


    December 15, 2009 at 19:22

  18. Looks very great in your country !!
    Love the pictures and special the yummie food 🙂


    December 15, 2009 at 21:42

  19. Clive

    Lovely to read about traditions in other countries.


    December 15, 2009 at 23:41

  20. 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.


    December 16, 2009 at 00:44

  21. 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.


    December 16, 2009 at 02:24

  22. Thanks for sharing!


    December 16, 2009 at 03:05

  23. Loran

    I have always wanted to see a procession of Lucia.


    December 16, 2009 at 05:11

  24. 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!


    December 16, 2009 at 06:58

  25. 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.


    December 16, 2009 at 07:58

  26. Hmm – those wine-soaked raisins sound mighty good!


    December 16, 2009 at 13:16

  27. Mmmm! Am looking for cheap flights to Sweden right now! Sounds fantastic!


    December 16, 2009 at 15:18

  28. 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.


    December 16, 2009 at 15:25

  29. Oh those buns look yummy – as for Glogg – I made some mulled wine last week and it must be a bit like your Glogg


    December 16, 2009 at 16:01

  30. ….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


    December 16, 2009 at 16:04

  31. Jen

    I have always wanted to make saffron buns. Now on my day off, I am going to have to do it, just to see what they taste like.



    December 16, 2009 at 17:48

  32. I just had a brilliant idea–next year, the Pond can have a St. Lucia celebration!


    December 16, 2009 at 18:43

  33. It is sure boring being an American of mixed race heritage!


    December 17, 2009 at 02:48

  34. That glogg sounds delish!


    December 17, 2009 at 03:34

  35. looks so yummy and perfect with coffee.


    December 17, 2009 at 13:16

  36. 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,


    December 17, 2009 at 22:42

  37. A friend brings us lussekatter every year…. I am eating one while browsing Best Posts of the Week. What a lovely post and lovely coincidence!


    December 19, 2009 at 18:54

  38. I want some glogg.


    December 21, 2009 at 03:05

  39. It is a beautiful procession..you are lucky to see such different things..thanks for sharing..I personally wouldn’t like to wear candles..I am too much of a klutz! 🙂


    December 23, 2009 at 04:09

  40. Pingback: The triumph of light « Lady Fi

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