Historic background about the Scandinavian tradition of St. Lucia and “Lussekatter”

Lucia day is celebrated on 13th December every year, primarily in Norway and Sweden.

St. Lucia was a young Christian girl living in Sicily a long time ago. She was martyred and killed for her faith.

Wanting to remain a virgin to serve God, she gave her dowry to the poor. She would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians while wearing candles on her head to have both hands free to carry things. Her fiancee denounced her for defying him and in the year 304 she was sentenced to be burned as a witch. The flames didn’t touch her so she was stabbed in the heart. The red sash used in the celebration today, represents the wound that finally killed her.

It is said that she appeared during a famine in Sweden in the middle ages carrying food to the farmers across Lake Vännern. In the middle ages it was believed that December 13 fell on the shortest day of the year; Winter Solstice (in Scandinavia, the sun is up for only a few hours in winter. In some places it doesn’t come up at all. Today we know Dec. 21st to be the shortest day)

So, in Scandinavia, this Festival of Lights was turned into St. Lucia’s day, celebrating the fact that the days will start getting longer.

The original celebration

On the morning of December 13, the oldest daughter dresses in a special long white dress with a red ribbon around the waist and white socks and no shoes. She puts a wreath made out of leaves on her head. The wreath has 6 – 8 candles on it. Nowadays the candles are usually battery powered light bulbs instead of real candles. Her sisters also wear special long white dresses but they have a shiny/glittery ribbon around their heads, while carrying a candle in their hands. Her brothers wear a special long white gown with a shiny sash and a pointed hat with three stars on it. They carry a baton with a star on it. They are called Star Boys. The children serve coffee and special saffron bread to the rest of the family. They walk into the bedroom with the oldest daughter in the front, followed by the next tallest girl, down to the smallest. Then the boys follow with the tallest in the front. As they bring in the Lucia bread and coffee the girls sing “Santa Lucia” and then the boys sing “Stefan was a Stable-boy.” The children then go to their neighbors and teachers and serve them the coffee and bread. The “bread” is called “Lussekatter” and taste delicious. Find the recipe for the saffron bread; Lussekatter, below.

Recipe for “lussekatter” or saffron bread

150 g butter
5 dl milk
50 g dry yeast
1/2 ts saffron
150 g sugar
1/2 ts salt
2 ts cardamom
10- 13 dl flour (stop adding when dough is smooth and feels ready)

1 egg for glacing
raisins for decoration

  1. Grind saffron with a little sugar in a mortar and pestle. If you don’t have saffron or you don’t like the extra hassle, it’s actually fine to leave the saffron out. In fact I didn’t use saffron in mine.
  2. Melt butter, add milk and heat to 40 degrees (just about hot when you put your finger in), add saffron.
  3. Mix dry ingredients, but keep a bit of flour to the side to add only if necessary (make sure salt and yeast doesn’t touch in the mix, as salt lessens the rising ability of the yeast) and gradually add the hot milk mixture.
  4. Knead the dough at least 5 mins.
  5. Place in a greased bowl, cover with a damp cloth or plastic film and let rise in a warm place till twice the size.
  6. Knead again.
  7. Divide the dough into 30 parts and roll into traditional shapes (you can see a video of how to make the shapes in the digital story/book below, click on it to start the app). Add raisins as decoration and place on a greased sheet. Let rise about 15 minutes. Brush with beaten egg. Bake 7-10 minutes at 225 degrees until a nice golden color.

 Good luck and enjoy!

Click on the below digital book “LUSSEKATTER” for a video on how to make the different shapes. You click on the arrow to leaf through it like a book: