Every December Scandinavian expats, descendants, and wannabes gather for a Scandinavian Christmas potluck at the mega-church my family used to attend. Everyone participates in creating a Scandinavian Christmas atmosphere by bringing part of their family tradition — food, decoration, songs. I always found it interesting that some of these traditions are no longer part of modern Scandinavian culture but are kept alive in the US by those of Norwegian-American or Swedish-Americans heritage.
Several years have passed since I last attended the annual dinner. But, when I was younger, I often took part in the advent traditions. At some point during the dinner, a few of the other girls and I would slip away and change into long, white night gowns with red satin sashes. We lined up in order of height and age wearing a wreath of candles on our head. When the lights dimmed we would enter the room weaving through tables singing the Swedish or Norwegian Santa Lucia song. It is a traditional Neapolitan song with lyrics in all the Scandinavian languages.
“Svart senker natten seg i stall og stue. Solen har gått sin vei skyggene truer”
“The night descends in the stables and living rooms. The sun has gone away the shadows threaten.”
Saint Lucia Day is celebrated on the 13th of December throughout Scandinavia, and I believe, in Italy. Legend has it that in the 3rd century, Saint Lucia, a Sicilian girl, wore a candle-lit wreath on her head when she brought food and aid to Christians who were hiding from persecution. Lucia was martyred for her actions and was named a saint after her death.
When Catholic missionaries came to Scandinavia, they brought with them the tradition of commemorating Saint Lucia, a girl who brought light in the midst of darkness. The church blended the Saint Lucia feast with the ancient nordic traditions and decided to hold the celebration on December 13th, the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the Julian calendar year (we now use the Gregorian calendar). The solstice was thought to be most dangerous night of the year where trolls and other mythical creatures went from house to house. The darkest day of the year became the festival of light.
Santa Lucia is one of the few saints celebrated in Nordic Lutheran traditions and is celebrated more in Sweden than in Norway. Today in Norway, St. Lucia Day is mostly celebrated in preschools (barnehage) where children dress up and parade through school buildings with candles like I used to do at the Scandinavian Christmas dinner. Afterwards, they eat sweet saffron buns with raisins called lussekatter which I grew up baking on Saint Lucia Day.
I compared quite a few recipes which all had slight differences and compiled them to make this one. Let me know if you have any questions. I hope you enjoy!
Makes 18 small buns
3 ½ tbsp (50g) Butter
8 ½ oz (2 ½ dl) Milk
1oz (25g) Fresh Yeast (In the US, 20g fresh yeast is equivalent to one, ¼ oz packet dry yeast)
1/4 cup (50g) Sugar or Honey
¼ tsp Salt
¼ tsp Saffron (you can use Turmeric)
1 tsp Ground Cardamom
4 cups (8dl, 500g) Flour
Egg or Milk for brushing
Melt butter and add the milk. Warm the mixture until it is about body temperature (37°C). It should be warm to the touch, but not too hot. (If you use dry yeast, the milk mixture can be a little warmer).
Add the yeast and stir into the milk mixture.
Whisk the egg into to the mixture. Add the salt, sugar and spices.
Put the flour in a large room temperature bowl.
Add a little of the liquid mixture to the flour at a time with stir with a spatula until a ball forms. The dough may feel a little sticky.
Cover the bowl with towel or lid and let it sit in a warm place until the dough doubles in size. This takes about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 415°F (225 °C).
Put a little flour on your counter top or baking surface. Put the dough on the counter top, roll into one large sausage and cut into about 18 even sized pieces. Roll each individual piece into a cylinder about the thickness of a finger. Shape the dough into swirls of varying designs.
Decorate with raisins.
Put the rolls on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a towel and place in a warm part of the kitchen for 15-20 minutes to let the dough rise again.
Lightly whisk and egg and brush on the rolls before baking.
Bake the lussekatter in the rack of middle of the oven for about 5-8 minutes until they are light brown.
Let them cool on a cooling rack and enjoy with a good cup hot chocolate.