For Swedes, Dec. 13 starts early with saffron buns, ginger snaps, coffee and glögg (mulled wine), served by candle-crowned girls and boys in pointed hats.
For Italians, the day begins with a bowl of cuccia—wheat berries simmered with milk and sugar.
It’s St. Lucia's Day, and the traditions that come with it are many.
St. Lucia was an early Christian martyr of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily. After her wealthy mother recovered from an illness, Lucia and her mother distributed their riches to the poor in thankfulness, and at night to avoid the Roman cops.
Lucia’s non-Christian fiance did not take kindly to this redistribution of her wealth, and he denounced her to the pagan Roman authorities, who tortured her.
“Miraculously, when neither boiling oil nor burning pitch had the power to hurt her, she was blinded and slain with a sword. Her martyrdom [allegedly on Dec. 13, 304 A.D.] is recorded in ancient sources and in an inscription found in Syracuse,” the New Sweden Cultural Heritage Society explains on its website.
Because Lucia could not be burned by fire, she is celebrated as a saint of light.
In Sweden, where the story of Lucia probably arrived through missionaries, and where the darkest time of the year means very short days and very long nights, St. Lucia's Day is a big holiday, with St. Lucia competitions in most towns.
Nearby, Norway and Denmark also celebrate St. Lucia's Day, imported from Sweden. Swedish-Americans also celebrate the holiday.
Girls dress up in long white nightgowns with red sashes and with wreaths of candles (typically electric ones) around their heads, while boys are “star boys,” with white gowns, pointed hats and candles in their hands. In Sweden, some towns have early morning processions with the chosen Lucia making visits to shops and senior citizens' homes, according to Sweden.se.
The Lucia tradition can also be traced back to “the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam’s first wife,” Sweden.se adds:
It is said that she consorted with the Devil and that her children were invisible infernals. Thus the name may be associated with both lux (light) and Lucifer (Satan), and its origins are difficult to determine. The present custom appears to be a blend of traditions.
Further south, in sunny Sicily, the Italians eat the cooked wheat berries on Lucia’s saint day because the cooked wheat berries suggest Lucia’s eyeballs allegedly slashed by the Roman authorities.
The wheat berries also recall the story of how, during a famine in Syracuse in 1582, St. Lucia answered the prayers of the hungry by sending a boat laden with wheat grain to the city. Instead of processing the grain into flour to make bread, the hungry people of Syracuse quickly boiled the grain and ate it. The story is explained on the blog becomingitalianwordbyword.typepad.com.
For a recipe of cuccia, visit cimorelli.com/pie/mangia/cuccia.htm.
For a recipe of saffron Lucia rolls, visit www.food.com/recipe/saint-lucia-buns-lussekatter-saffron-buns-43784.
Do you celebrate St. Lucia's Day in your family? If so, how? Tell us in the comments.
Editor's note: This story originally was published on Dec. 13, 2011.