The celebration of Lucia has always been ‘around’ in my life as it were, since I was seven years old and started attending a Rudolf Steiner school. I discovered the candle crown through the illustrations of Elsa Beskow and John Bauer.
Now, Lucia is a festival which has quite complicated origins, but it’s dedicated to a Saint Lucia, a Christian martyr from Italy who was executed during the Diocletianic Persecution. Simply put, it’s a celebration of light, as St Lucia is traditionally thought to ‘wear light in her hair and she occupies the role of bearing light in the dark of the long Swedish winters.
In homes across Sweden, the eldest girl gets up before the sun and bakes lussekatter (saffron buns). She dresses herself in a white robe, ties a red sash around her middle, places a candle crown on her head and delivers coffee, the fresh lussekatter, and pepparkakor (gingerbread) to her parents, accompanied by singing siblings.
But Lucia has a darker side too, a side which I found myself all too eager to explore. In old Sweden, Lucia night, also known as the longest night of the year, was a dangerous one. In Pagan lore on this night all animals were possessed and developed the ability to talk. Up in the north of Sweden, there was a legend that Lucia was in fact Adam’s first wife and she consorted with the devil.
Now, you may have already made the connection, but lussekatter translates to Lucifer’s cats. These especially vibrant (that’s the saffron), S shaped buns represent a curled up cat, and are traditionally handed out during the Lucia processions which take place across Sweden. Traditionally there’s two raisins – the eyes, Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and was herself blinded before being executed – one at either end of the lussekatter.
I would have loved to have made my own lussekatter, but time wasn’t on my side today, and shelling out for a packet of saffron wasn’t within my means. (Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, is sold at the cash registers at supermarkets and pharmacies here in Sweden.) So I bought a lussekatter instead.
As advised, I warmed it up gently before eating. I can say now that saffron isn’t a favoured spice of mine. The bun wasn’t unpleasant as such, it was wonderfully soft, buttery and slightly sweet, but the saffron gave it a slightly off taste, a taste that cannot compete with kanelbullar or pepperkakor. I was thankful for the accompanying glögg!