Lucia and her buns

What is Lucia?

In this blog post, we’ll look at the Swedish lucia tradition, why Swedes celebrate an Italian saint, and we’ll also look at the traditional Lucia buns that are served at this time of the year. You’ll also get a free Lucia bun recipe, both in Swedish AND in English (so you can learn some new baking vocab while making your own!

The Swedish Lucia Tradition

Next week, on the 13 December, Sweden celebrates Lucia. The annual candlelit Lucia procession is maybe one of the more exotic-looking Swedish customs, with girls and boys clad in white full-length gowns singing songs together.

The tradition is that Lucia wears ‘light in her hair’, which means a crown of candles in a wreath on her head. Each of her handmaidens carries a candle, too. Many people nowadays taking part, especially younger children, use battery-powered candles. But there is still a special atmosphere when the lights are dimmed and the sound of singing grows as they enter the room. Parents gather in the dark with their mobile cameras ready. The star boys carry stars on sticks and have tall paper cones on their heads, and are also dressed in white gowns.

The History of Lucia

The Lucia tradition can be traced back to Saint Lucia of Syracuse, Italy. Saint Lucia was a Christian martyr who died in 304. But the tradition can also be traced to the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam’s first wife. According to the legend, she consorted with the Devil and her children were invisible devils. The name Lucia can be associated with both lux (light) and Lucifer (Satan), and it’s difficult to know the exact origins. What you can see in Sweden today is a mixture of traditions.

In the old calendar, Lucia Night was the longest night of the year. It was a dangerous night when supernatural beings were abroad and all animals could speak (yep, we did really believe this). By morning, the livestock needed extra feed. People, too, needed extra nourishment and were told to eat seven or nine (!) large breakfasts.

Before industrial times, young people used to dress up as Lucia figures (lussegubbar) that night and wander from house to house singing songs and scrounging for food and schnapps.

The first recorded appearance of a Lucia dressed in white in Sweden was in a country house in 1764. The tradition did not become universally popular in Swedish society until the 1900s, when schools and local associations in particular began promoting it. The old lussegubbar-custom disappeared with urban migration, and white-clad Lucias with their singing processions were considered a more acceptable, controlled form of celebration than the youthful shenanigans of the past. Stockholm proclaimed its first Lucia in 1927. The tradition of a Lucia serving coffee and buns (lussekatter) dates back to the 1880s, although the buns were around long before that.

The Lucia Buns

Lussebullar, or Lussekatter, are traditional saffron buns that Swedes eat during this time of the year. Each bun is shaped into an S-shape, which is supposed to resemble a curled up cat (hence why some call them Lussekatter), and then two raisins are added to represent the eyes. Nobody knows for sure the origins of the shape and the connection with Saint Lucia, but it seems likely that they were originally called djävulskatter (the devil’s cats).

Would you like to have a go at making your own Lucia Buns? Click here to download a free recipe.

Here are some other useful tips about the Lucia Buns

• Always freeze the buns as soon as they are cold and defrost only what you will use on the same day.

• Lussekatter are best eaten when freshly baked, so if you want them freshly made on the day, you could prepare the dough the night before, cover with clingfilm (food wrap) and store in a fridge overnight.

• For a little more flavour, add half a teaspoon of ground cardamom to the flour. Although cardamom was not traditionally added to lussekatter, many modern bakers in Sweden add a little to enhance the flavour of the buns.

• As saffron buns can dry out very easily take them out of the oven as soon as they are just the right colour, put them on a wire rack and cover them with a cloth. Another thing that you can add to the dough to make the buns less dry, is Quark or Greek Yoghurt.

• Lussekatter are best served slightly warm. If necessary, they can be reheated in a microwave for about 30 seconds on a medium setting (but be very careful not to overheat them). You can also warm them in the oven on low heat (but again, be careful they don’t dry out too much).

• Many Swedes like to drink glögg with their Lucia Buns. There is glögg with alcohol available to buy from Systembolaget, but also alcohol free in most food shops.

Download a free recipe for Lussebullar here

Lucia – classic Swedish tradition, or sexist popularity contest?

Today, many Swedish schools will celebrate Lucia. Well-known as a a very typical tradition in Sweden, the day (which is actually the 13th of Dec) commemorates Saint Lucy – a Christian martyr who died during the Diocletianic Persecution. But as the date is also close to winter solstice it has become a festival of light.

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However, lately the tradition has frequently become a matter of debate. Traditionally, lucia has always been a girl and only girls have been allowed to take part in the lucia election process, but in several Swedish schools in recent years this has been challenged. This year, several boys have been allowed to be lucia.

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There has also been debates around the lucia election process itself. Lucias are chosen on school level, county level and national level. Traditionally, a lucia would be chosen through voting. In my old high school, each class would present two candidates and photos of all the girls would be put up in a communal school area for everyone to vote.

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This often turned into a very fierce popularity contest, with very narrowly defined criteria for what lucia should look like. This also often meant that girls who were perceived as not fitting the “lucia stereotype” look were ridiculed. I remember girls who were chosen deliberately by their class because they did not fit the stereotype, and so became bullied and ridiculed when their photo was published. I also remember girls who did have the classic “lucia look” but were not particularly popular in class, and how upset they were not to be chosen as candidates.

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Above is my first Lucia at nursery – yep, that’s shorty me to the right. At nursery, all girls were allowed to be lucia if they wanted. It was only later on (around the age of 12-13), that the voting element was introduced where I went to school. 

More recently, several students and other activists have started to criticise the popularity element in the lucia election process, and have pointed out that it seems old fashioned. Perhaps the lucia tradition is falling out of fashion? A bit like the Miss Universe contests in recent years, something harking back to a different era where beauty contents for women were common.

Some schools have responded by changing the election to a draw, thereby trying to remove the element of popularity contest. There are also reports that some counties in Sweden struggle to even find candidates who are interested in participating.

In November, Svenska Dagbladet debated this issue online, and some of the opinions were:

– “Skip Lucia in schools but keep the tradition on national level”

– “Introduce draws instead of voting for candidates”

– “Lucia is a classic tradition, which we should not simply remove because to the “Politically Correct Mafia” have issues with it”

– “Typically Swedish to remove good old traditions”

– “I don’t understand what criteria I should use to vote? I don’t know the girls so I can only go on their looks. Feels very old fashioned”

– “Can’t really see the connection between a cute blonde Swedish girl and an Italian Christian martyr”

– “The tradition contributes to several sexist structures – boys are excluded and girls are selected based on their looks” 

What do you think? Is Lucia an old tradition worth keeping, or should it be a thing of the past? Or should some elements of the tradition be updated and modified?

The Lucia song, English translation:

The night stalks with heavy treads
around the homestead and cottage
Around the earth forsaken by the sun
the shadows brood
Then, in[to] our dark house
strides with candles lit
Saint Lucy, Saint Lucy

The night was large and silent
Now, listen, it’s swishing
in all the quiet rooms
soughing as if by wings
See, at our doorstep stands
clad in white with lights in [her] hair
Saint Lucy, Saint Lucy

The dark shall soon flee
from the dells of the earth
So she a wonderful
word to us speaks
The day shall again, new made
rise from a rosy sky
Saint Lucy, Saint Lucy

Svenska:

Natten går tunga fjät
runt gård och stuva
Kring jord som soln förlät
skuggorna ruva
Då i vårt mörka hus
stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia

Natten var stor och stum.
Nu, hör, det svingar
i alla tysta rum
sus som av vingar
Se, på vår tröskel står
vitklädd med ljus i hår
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia

Mörkret skall flykta snart
ur jordens dalar
Så hon ett underbart
ord till oss talar
Dagen skall åter ny
stiga ur rosig sky
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia