A Happy St. Lucia Day to all of my Scandinavian family and friends! For the non-Vikings in the crowd, St. Lucia Day is a celebration of light on the darkest day of the year. Oh, and there’s eating. And drinking. Because what respectable Viking celebrates anything without eating and drinking?
And there are candles . . . lots of candles.
Before Christianity spread to northern Europe, the most important holiday in Scandinavia was the mid-winter Pagan Festival of Yule, which took place each year on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year), around December 21st. Families and friends gathered together to share food and sustenance (read as: alcohol) — bonfires were lit and candles burned — darkness was overcome. Pretty nifty, right? Today, St. Lucia Day celebrations retain a lot of these same elements.
So if the winter solstice is on December 21st, why is St. Lucia Day on December 13th? It all boils down to a calendar discrepancy between the old Julian calendar and the new Gregorian calendar. Just leave it at that.
Who was St. Lucia? The name Lucia means light (it’s starting to make sense now, isn’t it?). Lucia was born in Sicily around 283 AD. She was martyred in 304 AD for providing aid and comfort to persecuted Christians, hiding in the catacombs of Rome, during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. Lucia wore a crown of candles on her head to light her way through the catacombs, and so she could keep her hands free to carry food and supplies. Carrying food to people hiding in catacombs doesn’t sound all that martyr-worthy to me, but what do I know?
In an alternate legend story (because you can’t be a saint without a legend story), Lucia, a Christian, refuses her arranged marriage to a Pagan man. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with Pagan man, and he outs her as a Christian to the Romans. Lucia is subsequently tortured (she’s stabbed through the neck with a spear — the Romans play hardball), and then she’s burned alive. But she doesn’t die. At least not right away. Now that’s a martyr story.
St. Lucia Day marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavia. Each town in Scandanavia elects its own St. Lucia (yes, kind of like a pageant). Lucia wears a long white gown with a red sash and a wreath of candles on her head. Lucia leads a parade through the town, trailed by all the younger girls and boys — all wearing white robes and holding candles. Let there be light!
To celebrate St. Lucia Day at home, the oldest girl in the family gets the honor of playing St. Lucia. In my family, I’m not only the oldest, but the only girl. So there were never any “Why does she always get to be Lucia?” arguments.
Today, Lucia has the option to wear a crown with battery-powered candles. You know, for safety.
When I was St. Lucia, I wore REAL candles on my head. None of this battery powered safety-candle crap. Real candles, with real flames, and real wax. And let me tell you something about wax . . . it’s hot when it drips onto your head.
Now that I’m an adult, I don’t parade around in a white gown wearing a fire-code violation on my head. And I’m pretty sure that whole ring-of-fire thing is going to end with me. My daughter took one look at the candle crown and said, “Your parents made you wear that?!? Didn’t they tell you you’re not supposed to play with fire?”
So no one in my family wants to wear white gowns or fire on their heads anymore. Where does that leave our Lucia tradition? Well, we still have the Lucia crown — add some greenery, and it makes an excellent and festive centerpiece. And my Lucia Christmas tree ornament still has a place of honor on our tree.
But, as far as I’m concerned, the core of any tradition boils down to . . . eating and drinking!
Traditionally, St. Lucia serves a breakfast of Lussebullar, or St. Lucia buns, to her family. St. Lucia buns are made with saffron, and while I’m a big fan of saffron in risotto, I don’t just love it in baked goods. So we usually improvise with Swedish spritz cookies (I flavor mine with almond).
But the best part of St. Lucia Day for me is the Glögg . . . the Swedish version of mulled wine.
I 💜 mulled wine — I wrote a post about mulled wine last year. I’m pretty sure this is how Glögg was born: When Scandinavians first tasted mulled wine, they thought, “Hey, this is really good. You know what would make it better? Vodka.” And then Glögg happened. Scandinavians also add Aquavit (another vodka-esque spirit) to their Glögg. And a handful of cardamom pods.
Last week, my folks brought me this bag of Glühwein spices from the Kriskindlemarkt in Munich . . .
I’ve been dying to try them, and St. Lucia Day is the perfect occasion. I have no idea what the directions say, so I’m going to use a foolproof method of measurement . . . I’m gonna wing it.
Ahhhh. Here’s to St. Lucia . . . Skål!