Long ago on a dark gray afternoon, many years ago, we were running errands with our young daughter. It was December, and we were living near Gothenburg, in southern Sweden. It was our first year living there. We had a charming cabin for the winter, but still, the time of seasonal affective disorder was upon us.
Even though we had known the daylight would wane in latitudes far more northern than what we were used to, nothing fully prepared us for the first time the sun dipped in the early afternoon, only a few hours after it had risen. We asked ourselves, “If it’s this dark in early December, what will it be like on the darkest day of the year? And this is the south. What must it be like in the rest of Scandinavia to the north?”
In the hallway of a building that day, someone was absent-mindedly whistling. The melody, lyrical and Mediterranean, floated after us and caught in our minds, carrying something exotic — even tropical. As we stepped out into the cold, dark afternoon, walking home in our boots and hats, the song followed, flickering like lights across a harbor.
And then we heard it again — and again and again. If you live in Sweden, especially with a daughter, there is no escaping that song in the month of December. Much later we learned it is a traditional tune from Naples, named after an ancient harbor district called Santa Lucia. Early Italian versions of the lyrics extol a silver star over the water on a Neapolitan evening, where gentle breezes fill sails. There, the darkness provides refreshment — from too much Mediterranean sun!
In Sweden, over 1500 miles to the north, the festival of Santa Lucia on December 13th celebrates neither Italy nor tropical sun. The Santa Lucia song is played and sung with Swedish lyrics and with distinctively Nordic pageantry.
At our daughter’s Swedish preschool, our American family soon fell in with the Santa Lucia tradition, which was repeated in schools and homes, in towns large and small — and a procession of thousands in Stockholm was even broadcast on national television.
For the most part, it happens in the dark. All over the country, out of the winter blackness, lines of solemn girls, dressed in long white gowns tied with red sashes, step from the shadows with crowns of sparkling candles, singing the Lucia Song. In many homes, and in schools with younger children, boys parade also.
One English translation of the Swedish lyric goes in part like this:
Deep in the northern sky
Bright stars are beaming;
Winter is drawing nigh
Candles are gleaming.
Clad in her garment white,
Wearing her crown of light,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
As with the Neapolitan tune about the harbor, the historical Lucy — a Christian saint martyred in the fourth century — is scarcely relevant to the meaning of the song today. The Swedish song sung in a Lutheran country is instead a song about darkness and light. As Lucia processions were popularized throughout the 20th century, the candles became flickering reminders that even at the winter solstice light will not be extinguished completely, and that even under dark skies we can sing.
And, it also turns out, Lucia is actually about breakfast. In homes on Lucia Day, singing children, bedecked in crowns of battery-powered candles, triumphantly carry saffron rolls to their parents in bed. Parents of kids old enough to manage coffee are doubly blessed.
Our daughter, Nell, was only three, and none of us spoke Swedish well enough to sing with words other than “Dum dum de dumdy dum.” But we soon found that the enjoyment, as with so many holiday dishes, is as much in the preparing as the consuming.
The rolls are called lussekatt, and each is twisted into an S curve, or tied in a knot, or shaped any way that enters the imagination. We also learned that many families set out a lussekatt or two for a little old fellow who stops by the home late at night in a red suit — the Tomten.
And, as with the Lucia song, and with the candles, lussekatt rolls possess a flicker of Mediterranean sunlight from their dominant spice, saffron. Derived from flowers originally cultivated in Greece and still grown there today and across the lower latitudes of Spain, Morocco and Iran, saffron is the dried stigma of the saffron crocus plant.
While making lussekatt, we discovered that not only does saffron delightfully perfume and flavor dough, it also gives it the hue of sunshine. Never having used saffron before, I was amazed to find that Nell and I could grind the slender stigma with a little sugar in a mortar to first get crumbs of dark red. Mixing these in milk, butter and yeast produces a bright splash of orange, dazzling as fire. As the flour and other ingredients are added, the color pales to yellow.
We were told that the farther north you go in Sweden, the more saffron is used in lussekatt. Of course, saffron is also one of the most expensive spices on the planet, so food coloring sometimes is substituted. But one way or another, it’s nice to imagine that the longer and darker the days, the yellower the lussekatt rolls that children carry.
Once our family returned to the lower latitudes, we kept celebrating Lucia Day. After Scandinavia, we appreciated the northeast coast of the United States, where the sun rises by breakfast, even in December. Here a Lucia procession is bathed in sunlight because the participants aren’t willing to set an alarm clock for the pre-dawn hours.
Every year growing up, Nell wore a crown of battery-powered candles, a red sash, and a succession of white bathrobes and dresses, and carried a tray into her parents’ bedroom, where we all ate lussekatt and dropped saffron-flavored crumbs in bed.
Today Nell’s children, Lily and Jasper, have yet to visit Sweden, but continue the tradition. Once a year is not often enough for us, and so we usually make lussekatt for breakfast several times to get us through the winters. We mix ingredients in the evening, shape the rolls and let them rise, and enjoy the dough perfuming the house with saffron. The rolls spend the night on cookie sheets in the refrigerator, and get baked by the first person up the next morning.
We never did memorize all the Swedish lyrics to the Lucia song, but just humming that Mediterranean tune still floats our spirits in the darkest weeks of the year.
First published December 2014