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Coffeecake welcomes tradition of St. Lucia Day

Thursday, December 06, 2001

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Quietly, on the morning of Dec. 13, a ceremony will be re-enacted in the homes of many local families of Scandinavian descent as Saint Lucia Day signals the beginning of the Swedish Christmas season.

Swedes around the world will celebrate Saint Lucia's Day next Thursday with saffron-flavored sweet buns. Tradition dictates that a young girl garbed in a white robe with a red sash and crown of glowing candles awake the family with a tray of coffeecakes and coffee. Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette / Food styling by Marlene Parrish

Traditionally, the oldest daughter in the family portrays Saint Lucia, the Queen of Light, and she serves the elder members of the family coffee and pastries in bed.

The pageant goes something like this. While the parents snuggle under comforters and feign sleep, the children are in the kitchen bustling about. Coffee must be brewed, and saffron-flavored Saint Lucia coffeecake or buns must be warmed.

The daughter, dressed in a long white gown with red sash, lights a ring of candles and carefully lifts it up to rest securely on her head as a crown. (Although there's no record of how many kids got their ears singed with molten candle wax over the years, these days the candles are usually battery-powered.)

When everything is ready, the coffee is poured, the Lucia buns are placed on a tray and the breakfast procession slowly begins toward the parents' bedroom. The children sing a traditional song: "Now the light is carried forth, proud on its crown, in every house, and every home, the song shall ring." (It probably rhymes in Swedish.)

The girl's white robe symbolizes the purity of the saint. The red sash symbolizes the martyred blood of Saint Lucia, and atop her head is a crown of lingonberry or holly, woven around the ring of candles. It is appropriate that Swedes associate Lucia with light, since her name comes from the Latin word lux, meaning light.

Other children are included in the celebration, too. Younger sisters dress as maidens, wearing white robes with a crown of silver tinsel, and each bears a single lighted candle. The boys of the family wear white robes as well, and wear cone-shaped hats decorated with stars. The boys are called Starngossar, or star boys. In homes where there are no daughters, a Saint Lucia is "borrowed" from friends or relatives.

In Stockholm, citizens turn out for the Lucia Day parade, a procession led by a beautiful costumed Saint Lucia and her crew of singing attendants. Lesser Lucia parades and processions are held all over Sweden in schools, hospitals and offices on this day. By the end of the day the general population is fairly wired on Lucia coffee and sweet saffron-flavored buns.

Saint Lucia was Italian

Oddly, Saint Lucia was Italian, a Sicilian martyr. So how did an Italian girl-turned-saint come to be honored in Sweden?

There are several legends about the real Saint Lucia. One of the most common is that she was born of wealthy, noble parents about 283 AD in Syracuse, Sicily. Her father died when she was very young.

When her mother fell ill and her death appeared imminent, the desperate Lucia took her on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Agatha, where miraculous healings were rumored to take place. The mother was healed and both women embraced Christianity. Together they pledged to use their wealth to help the sick and the poor.

At the time, Sicily was under the rule of an emperor, and Christianity was forbidden in favor of pagan gods. But the devout young Sicilian virgin held to her faith and distributed food to the homeless and starving.

Many of those poor families sought refuge in caves, and Lucia would make her way through the passageways with armfuls of bread. She wore a crown of candles on her head to light the way, leaving her hands free to distribute the food.

Now the plot thickens. Lucia vowed to remain a virgin. But before her father died, he had arranged her marriage into a pagan family, a deal that Lucia had no intention of honoring. Her betrothed, however, demanded her hand as his bride. Lucia flat-out refused. In a rage, the suitor took his revenge and reported Lucia's Christian faith to the Roman officials, setting up a worst-case scenario.

On Dec. 13, 304 AD, Lucia was led before a court where she was sentenced. But she was one tough cookie. When the guards tried to drag her away, she was immovable. They tried to poke out her eyes, but she could still see. In desperation, the court ordered that she be burned. Bundles of wood were piled up around her and the fire ignited. But she was not consumed by the flames. Lucia was finally killed by the sword of one of the soldiers.

Later she was venerated as a martyr and saint, and the day of her death, Dec. 13, was named Saint Lucia's Day.

Bringing light to Sweden

Time passed, and the day had no real significance for centuries. As Christianity spread through Europe and into Scandinavia, though, the pagan celebration of Winter Solstice had to be replaced with a Christian celebration. In keeping with "timing is everything," winter solstice happened to fall on Dec. 13, so Saint Lucia was the natural choice.

The legend of the celebration was cemented when a terrible famine came to the Province of Varmland in Sweden during the middle ages. The poor village was starving to death. But on Dec. 13 of that year a large white ship was seen coming through the night across Lake Vanern, with a beautiful young woman standing on the bow. She was wearing a brilliant white gown, and a ring of light encircled her head.

The country people boarded the ship to find that its cargo was food, clothing and supplies. They quickly unloaded it, and as they carried the last baskets away the people looked back to see that the ship was no longer there.

Probably, it had been a much-needed supply ship from another province. But many felt in their hearts that it was a gift from Saint Lucia, and as the story spread, celebrations of Saint Lucia's Day began. Even after the calendar was reformed and winter solstice fell on a later day, the 13th of December remained the celebration of Saint Lucia.

Saint Lucia Wreath

A Saint Lucia coffeecake is the traditional offering on Dec. 13. The rich dough is colored and flavored with saffron. Either a large wreath or a plate of individual buns -- formed in the shapes of wreaths, crowns and cats -- is perfect for a holiday brunch or when guests come to call. This authentic recipe is from Beatrice Ojakangas's "Scandinavian Feasts" (University of Minnesota Press). If yours is a small household, divide the dough in half and make two smaller wreaths.

1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup (1 stick ) butter, melted
1 teaspoon saffron threads (a good pinch)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup currants
2 eggs, warmed
4 to 4 1/2 cups flour
1 large egg, beaten
Sugar sprinkles, optional

To make the dough: In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Add a pinch of sugar. Heat the milk and add the melted butter to it; cool until the mixture is lukewarm.

Pulverize the saffron with 1 teaspoon of the sugar, using a mortar and pestle or with the back of a spoon in a small dish. Add 1 tablespoon of the warm milk-and-butter mixture and allow the saffron to steep for 5 minutes.

Add the saffron mixture, milk-and-butter mixture, sugar, salt, currants and eggs to the yeast. Using an electric blender on medium speed, beat until blended. Add 2 cups flour and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of the remaining flour and mix with a wooden spoon to make a medium-stiff dough. Let dough rest for 15 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board. Knead for 8 minutes or until the dough is smooth and satiny. Place the dough in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Turn the dough over to lightly oil the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

To make a braided wreath: Punch the dough down and divide into 3 parts. With the palms of your hands, roll and shape each part into a rope-like strand about 36 inches long. Braid the strands by aligning them vertically and alternately crossing each outer strand over the center strand. Shape the braid into a circle and place on a greased or parchment-covered baking sheet. Pinch the ends together where they meet to seal the strands and to conceal the beginning and end of the braid.

Transfer to the baking sheet. Brush with the beaten egg. Sprinkle with sugar sprinkles if using. Let rise for about 45 minutes or just until puffy.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until lightly browned, or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the dough comes out clean and dry. Cool on a rack. Makes 16 servings.

Note: To make two smaller wreaths: Divide the dough into 2 parts and braid as above. Place each wreath on a baking sheet, allow to rise and bake for about 20 minutes.

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