On Monday, December 13, I received an email from my sister. Contained within was a photo of my nieces, Catherine and Annika (pictured above), decked out in white robes and crowns made of plastic evergreens; Catherine, the eldest, had five electric candles atop her head. I had forgotten that it was St. Lucia Day.
The saint and the feast day are closely associated with Sweden, but Lucia is neither Swedish nor the country’s patron. Though the holiday is enjoyed by children, like most saints, the biography of St. Lucia is much too ghastly for young ears. A Christian living in the city of Syracuse in Sicily in the early fourth century AD, Lucia (or Lucy) was betrothed to a rich pagan man, but she rejected him and had her dowry disbursed to the poor. Upon hearing this, he denounced her as a Christian (which was then a crime), and she was tortured and executed, but not before a series of miracles prolonged her martyrdom, like when she continued to speak after he throat was slashed, and when the flame that was meant to burn her alive kept going out. Eventually her executioners became so exasperated that they just stabbed her to death. Lucy is often depicted holding a plate or cup containing her eyes, which were gouged out before her death.
I went online and found a recipe, and I was lucky to discover that I had all of the ingredients in my kitchen already. I borrowed the recipe from this article on About.com, so I’ll just direct you there. The buns turned out pretty well, as you can see – they’re not very sweet, but I would warn you about the saffron. I didn’t think it was possible to put too much saffron in something. I mean, it’s the world’s most expensive spice, it makes all foods delicious, and even the tiniest amount turns everything a deep, rich yellow color. But if you’re not used to that flavor in your desserts, go easy, using just enough to turn your batter mixture yellow, not deep orange, as I did.
Once the dough is kneaded and ready, you can form the buns into shapes. We stuck with the traditional “S”, which, though not unique to Sweden, does have special significance there. Scandinavia was the home of Vikings and Norse gods and all manner of nasty pagan things that Christianity has tried to stamp out, but they have now become integral to modern Christmas celebrations. Lussekatter are no exception – the traditional “S” shape was likely handed down from earlier pastries baked to celebrate Yule, the pagan solstice holiday. The cakes were also common treats on St. Nicholas Day, but Lutheran reformers stamped out the holiday in the 16th century (they considered the veneration of saints polytheistic heresy). The buns came back two centuries later when the reformist zeal died down and the veneration of different saint – St. Lucia – became popular.
So, you don’t have to be Swedish to celebrate St. Lucia Day, and you certainly don’t have to be Christian to enjoy some Lussekatter. If you do decide to share this tradition with your family, you might want to leave out the story of the eye-gouging and the burning at the stake and just stick to the pastries.