of Saint Lucia’s Day
A favorite Scandianian holiday tradition is tied to the beautiful white clad figure of Lucia, the “bearer of light,” who illuminates the darkness of winter on the morning of December 13th. Very early, before dawn, when the world is still blanketed in darkness, Lucia appears at each bedside, dressed in a white gown with a red sash, wearing a crown of candles on her head, she awakens each member of the family with light saying: “Saint Lucia brings you light and bids you come to breakfast.” In her hands she carries a tray of coffee, sweet rolls and cookies.
Scandinavia is sometimes called “The Land of the Midnight Sun,” because at the point of the Summer Solstice the sun never sets; literally still shining at midnight, dissolved in a blue haze which fills the sky like gentle mist. At the opposite Solstice point; during the depth of winter, the darkness is total and for many days the sun does not rise at all. Here the celebration of Yule (or Jül) was born; huge fires were lit; to stave of the darkness; to help bring back the sun. Great Yule logs were burned, and people drank mead around the bonfires listening to minstrel-poets singing ancient legends.
This dark, cold time of the year is a paradox; both the most depressing and most hopeful of times. It is the period when, in early history, people sometimes actually feared that the light might not return. In Northern Hemisphere cultures, this period of cold and darkness was also actually the most dangerous time of the year; there was always the very real possibility that food and fuel might run out with no means left for survival, as well as the always present potential that the weather itself could bring destruction.
In the Northern Hemisphere the earth is in an orbit where the sunlight is at it’s weakest in December; it is during this time of darkness that people have traditionally turned inward to contemplate the meaning and the vulnerability of life. In the long Arctic night, hearts have always looked forward with longing toward the return of the light. Though the nights are the longest, and the darkness is at its deepest in December; it is at this point; at the point of Solstice, Yule or Sun Return; that everything shifts. The circling journey is no longer a descent into darkness, but a rise toward the reawakening of the light. It is not surprising that the people Scandinavia of would be fascinated by and adopt as their own, a saint who came bearing hope and light.
There are many legends associated with Lucia starting in fourth century Sicily. A young woman gave her dowry away to the poor and confessed herself a Christian. For this she was accused of witchcraft and put to death. Another legend tells of a famine in medieval days when Saint Lucia, as a glowing figure dressed in white, came across a lake in the province of Värmland, Sweden. She brought gifts of food to feed the starving people.
Though I grew up in the mountains of Utah and not in the Scandinavia of my ancestors, I still found the months of cold and long darkness very difficult. Like many members of my family, I suffer from seasonal affective disorder or SAD. SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression episodes and related to seasonal variations of light. SAD was first noted before 1845, not officially named until the early 1980’s, but is really as old as humankind. As sunlight has affected the seasonal activities of animals (i.e., reproductive cycles and hibernation), light has always affected humans as well. As seasons change, there is a shift in our “biological internal clocks” or circadian rhythm, due partly to these changes in sunlight patterns. I imagine my ancestors in the total darkness of the Arctic Winter of Scandinavia feeling literally sun-starved and understand how important the celebration of the returning light must have been.
When I was in college I became interested in the celebrations of winter that had to do with light and was intrigued to find that there are celebrations of light at this time of year from all over the world.
I decided to reach into my own heritage and revive St. Lucia. It was to a pair of extremely startled parents that I served my first Lucia breakfast, with tall white candles on my head. My mother just kept saying, “you looked just like an angel standing there all full of light!” Well. You know how mother’s are.
Let me tell you, it is no easy trick to walk and serve breakfast to people in bed with a candelabra of ten inch burning candles on your head. I guess my years of dancing helped me keep fairly level at least, though I will admit to a few splashes of stray wax, they always landed on me, I never splattered the person being served. I brought Lucia breakfast to my family until my own youngest daughter was big enough for me to put a crown of tiny candles on her head. The first few years, I had to carry the tray, as it was all she could do to walk with the candles burning, though I must add, since she has grown up to be an actor, she never forgot her lines.
The first time I took her into my mother and father’s room in the predawn darkness, she was about four. She was wearing a long, white dress with a red sash, a red wreath on her head where the tiny candles cast a circle of gilded light around her cloud of white-gold hair. She came to the bedside and lisped out: “Saint Lucia bwings you light and bids you come to bweakfast.” I nearly dropped the tray. “Oh!” I thought, “It’s an Angel!” Ah. Mothers.
In Scandinavia Saint Lucia’s day is often celebrated by the entire town. Offices, schools and community groups will select a “Lucia” or “Lucia Queen.” Saint Lucia is accompanied on her early morning walk through town by female attendants dressed in white and a procession of “star boys,” who wear cone-shaped paper hats and carry wands with stars on the end. All join in singing Lucia songs. Lucia’s day symbolically opens the Christmas celebrations in Scandinavia, bringing hope and light during the darkest months of the year.
The traditional Scandinavian baking for this celebration is ginger biscuits and saffron bread. I tried both and found that I was the only person who would eat the ginger cookies. The saffron bread has an interesting taste, but is quite difficult to make and I must admit that more often than not, I Americanizing the menu to sweet rolls and bagels, though I always served Danish butter cookies as well. Here are the traditional recipes.
Preheat oven to 180°C, 350°F.
½ teaspoon Saffron
Steep the saffron in the hot, water for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the milk and margarine in a saucepan. Heat until the margarine has melted. Cool. Add the lemon rind. Sprinkle the yeast into the milk mixture when lukewarm. Let stand for 5 minutes to dissolve. Add the sugar, nutmeg, 2 cups of the flour and the saffron mixture. Beat until smooth. Stir in the currants (or dark raisins) and another 1/2 cup of the flour. Cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Then punch down and knead on a lightly-floured board until smooth.
Shape into a loaf and place in an oiled 4- by 9-inch bread pan. Let rise until doubled. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 1 hour. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan before turning out on a wire rack. When the bread is thoroughly cooled, it may be sliced.
Danish Butter Cookies
3/4 cup butter, softened
Put butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed 3 to 4 minutes, or until well mixed. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after every addition. Add lemon juice and vanilla; mix well. Add flour; mix well. Using a pastry bag, squeeze dough (1 ½ inches in diameter) onto an ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake in a preheated 350*F oven 12 to 15 minutes, or until light brown.
Makes 3 ½ dozen cookies.