Today we celebrate surviving the year’s most dangerous night with a St. Lucy procession and homemade saffron-buns (Devil Cats). Have you ever tried one of these saffron-flavored Lucia buns? No? Here is your chance, the recipe will follow at the bottom of this post. First, we need to find out why do we put saffron in buns, and who was Saint Lucy?
The Feast of Saint Lucy is a Christian feast day commemorating Saint Lucy, and is observed by Lutherans and Catholics. Of course, us Northerners add our own twist to it. All that is really known for certain about Lucy is that she was a martyr in Syracuse (a historic city in Sicily, Italy) during the Diocletian Persecution of 304 AD. Her veneration spread to Rome, and by the 6th century to the whole Church.
Per the traditional story, Lucy was born of rich and noble parents around the year 283. Her father died when she was five years old, leaving Lucy and her mother without a protective guardian. As she grew older, Lucy consecrated her virginity to God, and hoped to distribute her dowry to the poor. Her mother was suffering from a bleeding disorder and feared for Lucy’s future, and not aware of Lucy’s promise, she arranged for her daughter’s marriage to a young man of a wealthy pagan family.
In hopes of a cure, the sick mother made a pilgrimage to Saint Agatha, whom had been martyred 52 years earlier during the Decian persecution. Her shrine at Catania, less than fifty miles from Syracuse, attracted several pilgrims and many miracles were reported to have happened through her intercession. While her mom was on this pilgrimage, St. Agatha came to Lucy in a dream and told her that because of her faith, her mother would be cured, and that Lucy would be the glory of Syracuse. Upon the return of the mother, all cured and healthy, Lucy took the opportunity to persuade her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor.
Lucy’s betrothed was all kinds off pissed off when he heard what was happening to the dowry and the riches of his future wife, so he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse. Paschasius ordered her to burn a sacrifice to the emperor’s image, which she of course refused, and thus she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel. The Christian tradition states that when the guards came to take her away, they could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, but the fire did not touch her. Finally, she met her death by the sword.
In the 15th century a new twist to the story first appears; before Lucy died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy end of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximilan would meet his end. This so angered Paschasius that he ordered the guards to remove her eyes. Another version has Lucy taking her own eyes out to discourage a persistent suitor who admired them. Miraculously, when her body was prepared for burial in the family mausoleum, it was discovered that her eyes had been restored. The eye gauging-story might have come into play because Lucy’s Latin name, Lucia, shares a root with the Latin word for light, lux. Therefore, she was named as the patron saint of the blind and those with eye-trouble. In paintings and artwork St. Lucy is frequently shown holding her eyes on a golden plate, and also the palm branch – a symbol of victory over evil.
Now, why do we celebrate this day in the Nordic countries? When the Nordic countries were Christened, the “missionaries” carried with them the commemoration of St. Lucy, and this story of a young girl bringing light in the darkest period of the year might fit in nicely with the Scandinavian folklore which is centered on the annual struggle between light and darkness. Of course, in this region, the extreme change in daylight hours between the seasons might be what owes the tradition its popularity.
Our pre-Christian holiday of Yule (jól), was the most important holiday in Scandinavia, and was originally the observance of the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun. Some of the practices of Yule remain in the Advent and Christmas celebrations today. We even kept the pagan name of the holiday! The Yule season was a time for feasting, drinking, gift-giving and gatherings, and the season of awareness and fear of the forces of the dark.
Worth mentioning is that St Lucy’s feast on Dec 13th, used to coincide with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, this is because the Julian Calendar was used at that time. When the Gregorian Calendar was employed, they kept the old date for St. Lucy’s feast and it no longer fell on the longest day.
In Nordic folklore, the night we just woke up from is called Lussi Langnatt (The long night of Lussi). On this night and onwards to Yule, all kinds of goblins, orks, trolls and evil beings were thought to be active outside. It was believed to be particularly dangerous to be out during Lussi Night. Per tradition, children who had done mischief had to take special care, since Lussi could come down through the chimney and take them away, and certain tasks of work in the preparation for Yule had to be finished, or else the Lussi would come to punish the household. You were also not supposed to do any work on this night, or else you would get punished. Lussi is a female demon like goblin/ork/which who ride through the air with her followers, called “Lussiferda” (this itself might well be an echo of the myth of the Wild Hunt, or “Oskoreia”). There is also a theory that Lussi might have come from a mix up between the holy Lucy (“Light”) and the devil name Lucifer (“light-bearer”)
Lussi represents the unseen beings, the trolls, the goblins, the Huldufolk, the demons. There are several tales of her being Adam’s first wife and matriarch for the night creatures, just like Lilith in Jewish folklore. I will not get further into this, even though I do find it fascinating. (This might be food for a future blogpost, but if you are interested and simply can’t way, then check it out for yourself by comparing the two different reports on the creation of the woman in the bible, you find them in Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:22)
Legend also has it that farm animals talked to each other on Lussinatten, and that they were given additional feed on this longest night of the year, and there are similes to the modern tradition on Christmas Eve, where farmers put bowls of porridge out in the barn for the goblins and make sure the animals have an extra treat.
The Karate Kid in the Lucia-procession in daycare.
As you will see, the way we celebrate St Lucy today is a mix of folklore and religion from all over the place. In preschools and schools a child is dressed up as Santa Lucia in a white gown and with a crown of candles on her head. She walks at the head of a procession of white clad children, holding candles that symbolize the fire that refused to take St. Lucy’s life when she was sentenced to be burned. They also sing a traditional Neapolitan song, Santa Lucia, where the Scandinavian lyrics are fashioned for the occasion, describing the light with which Lucy overcomes the darkness. Boys taking part of the procession are also dressed in white, but often have a cone shaped hat decorated with golden stars, also an old Nordic tradition that has been brought into the St Lucy veneration.
That we mix and match traditions is not just a Nordic phenomenon as this example from some regions of North-Eastern Italy where St. Lucy is also popular among children: Here St. Lucy is said to bring gifts to good children and coal to bad ones the night between December 12 and 13. Per tradition, she arrives in the company of a donkey and her escort, Castaldo. Children are asked to leave some coffee for Lucia, a carrot for the donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo. They must not watch Santa Lucia delivering these gifts, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them. Does this sound like someone else we know?
The Karate Kid is two and a half years old here.
Back to the Nordic way of doing it: The procession of singing, white clad children holding candles, often hand out a special baked bun, the Lussekatt, made with saffron. An older Swedish name for these baked goodies is Devil Cat. This tradition is said to come from Germany in the 1600s. The devil, in the form of a cat, would give the bad children a beating, while Christ, in the form of a child, would hand out buns to all the good children. To keep the shady Devil away, the buns are colored with saffron to make them yellow and representing the light the devil doesn’t like.
There you have it – this is the reason I greet you today with Lussekatter, these bespoke festive buns. You are welcome! (The way shorter and simpler reason is that I like Lussekatter and just wanted to make them.)
I promised you a recipe, mind you that this recipe also give the best buns and cinnamon rolls, but change the saffron for a teaspoon of cardamom if you are making something other than the Lussekatter.
- 1 liter milk
- 300 grams butter
- 250 grams icing sugar
- 1 gram saffron
- 100 grams yeast
- 1500 grams flour
- 1 egg
Add milk, butter and icing sugar in a pot and brink to a boil. Take the pot off the heat and stir in the saffron (if you are using the saffron strings, then place in a mortar and pestle with a teaspoon of sugar and grind to a powder). Let the mix cool to body temperature (37°C).
Stir the yeast in the mix, and add the flour. Knead the dough well. It is not necessary to proof the dough before making the buns in the shape of Lussekatter, but you can if you want. (see below for shaping-tips)
Place the shaped buns on greaseproof paper on a baking sheet and leave to proof for an hour. Decorate with raisins and dab lightly whisked egg on top of them to make them shiny.
Bake on 230°C for 7-10 mins on the middle rack. Keep an eye on them, you are using high temperature and you do not want the buns to burn on top.
Here you can see five different ways of rolling the buns. This vid is in Swedish, but you do not need to understand the narrative at all to see how to roll them.
Now, this is a rather large dough, and after rolling and shaping about half the dough, I got fed up by it all and decided to make something I call Christmas rolls with the rest. Simply roll out the rest of the dough with a rolling pin. Take a big chunk of marzipan out of the fridge and grate it over the rolled-out dough. Then roll it up like you would cinnamon rolls, cut discs with a knife and place them on a baking tin. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle chopped almonds and sugar. Supergood! The marzipan works great with the saffron.