This holiday season, many households are turning to familiar traditions that provide comfort and constancy in turbulent times. However, holiday traditions bring more than cheer during the long winter. The seasonal customs families practice, passed down through generations, can also tell the story of our cultural heritage.
- Ready for fika already? Here’s the Lussekatter recipe
Last holiday season, I stumbled across a startling realization as I researched holiday traditions around the world. My own family seemed to have habits that closely mirrored holiday customs from Sweden. From the fully loaded smorgasbord (julbord in the Swedish language) we enjoy every Christmas Eve to the customary breakfast tea ring laced with spices and dotted with raisins, our family seemed to have embraced traditional Swedish holiday foods. The reason for the way we celebrated the season became apparent when I dug into our genealogy. My mother’s family were Swedish immigrants several generations back who likely handed down the holiday customs we enjoy today.
This holiday, we teamed up with Coach Michelle to learn more Swedish holiday traditions surrounding St. Lucia Day, a feast day celebrated widely throughout Sweden, Norway, Italy, and parts of Finland. And for those sticking close to home for the holidays, we’ve adapted a traditional Swedish holiday recipe for your home kitchen so you can get a little taste of the holidays—or as the Swedes would say, jul (Christmas).
What words do I need to know for St. Lucia Day celebrations?
Obviously, if there’s going to be a fair bit of toasting going around, it helps to know what to say in response. Here are a few words to know in Swedish to raise a glass and wish good tidings for the season.
“Happy Holidays” in Swedish: God helg
“Merry Christmas” in Swedish: God Jul
“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” in Swedish: God Jul och Gott Nytt År
“Happy Hanukkah” in Swedish: Trevlig hanukkah
“Cheers” in Swedish: Skål or Skoll
“Buns” in Swedish: Bullar
What’s another important food-related word to know when you’re celebrating St Lucia Day? Coach Michelle says you might hear pepparkakor and it does refer to something spicy, although it’s not what you might think.
“Pepparkakor are gingerbread crackers. Lucia sometimes carries a basket of pepparkakor and hands them out to onlookers.”
What are Lussekatter or Swedish saffron buns?
The traditional Swedish saffron buns that girls pass out during St. Lucia processions are called lussekatter, which literally translates to “lusse-cats.” You may also hear Swedes refer to these buns as lussebullar which translates to “lusse-buns.” And while you might see them eaten for breakfast on December 13th, Swedes also enjoy them at fika, their mandatory tea time or coffee break in the morning and afternoon.
If you want to enjoy saffron buns like a true Swede, Coach Michelle says these fragrant little pastries aren’t difficult to make at home.
“They do take time since there are two separate risings involved but the most time-consuming step is forming the buns in their special shapes. The most noteworthy ingredient is saffron. It can be rather expensive in the US but it’s worth it for the flavor it imparts. Also, if you can find ‘pärlsocker’ or pearl sugar to sprinkle on top, all the better.”
Your first instinct may be to shape these buns like cinnamon rolls, but that’s not the Swedish way. Instead, you create a long strand of dough and then roll it into a circle on either end until they meet in the middle, creating a distinctive “S” shape. Use the recipe below to warm your kitchen with your very own batch of lusskatter this holiday and enjoy a fragrant and time-honored Swedish custom.
Lussekatter (Swedish Saffron Bun) recipe
Yields 20-24 small buns
Time: 1 ½ -2 hours
2 tsp. dry active yeast
½ cup butter (1 stick)
1 cup milk
½ gram of saffron
⅓ cup sugar
¼ tsp. salt
2 ¾ cup white flour
¼ cup raisins (optional)
1 egg, beaten
- Crumble the yeast in a mixing bowl.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan. Pour in the milk and warm until tepid, about 37 °C/98°F. Be careful not to overheat the milk as it will kill the yeast if it boils.
- Pour the liquid over the yeast and stir to dissolve, and then add sugar and salt.
- Add flour to a new mixing bowl and make a well. Add the milk mixture and fold until combined.
- Add saffron and knead until smooth and pliable but not too firm. Form into a ball, and test for bounce back with a finger poke. Cover with a towel to rise 30-40 minutes.
- Form dough into 6-inch long, finger-thick sausages. Let sit for 5 minutes. Then shape into 12” pieces. Shape each piece into the letter S, curling the ends like snakes. Press on a few raisins as decoration (optional). Cover and leave to proof until they look light and puffy, about 30 minutes.
- Place the buns on buttered or baking paper-lined (parchment paper) sheets.
- Brush with beaten egg. Bake in 225-250°C/450°F oven for 8-10 minutes.
- Place on a wired rack and cover with a cloth. Leave to cool.
**This dough can be used for other Christmas bread as well.**
What is St. Lucia Day?
St. Lucia Day, sometimes referred to as Saint Lucy’s Day or if you’re Swedish simply Lucia, is a Christian feast day celebrated throughout Scandinavia and Italy. It’s a celebration that began in the 1700s to honor Lucia of Syracuse who folklore says brought food to persecuted Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs. Today it marks the start of the Christmas season and symbolizes the light of “Christ” entering the world for Scandinavian Christians.
When is St. Lucia Day?
St. Lucia Day is celebrated on December 13th, coinciding with the shortest day of the year in the modern calendar. Because it falls within the traditional advent season, St. Lucia’s Day is often seen as a festival of light and ushers in the Christmas season in Scandinavia. This year St. Lucia Day will take place on Sunday, December 13th, 2020.
How is St. Lucia Day celebrated in Sweden?
On St. Lucia Day, young girls dress as Lucia in white robes with a red sash and a wreath of lingonberries and candles in their hair. The girls often carry cookies or saffron buns (lussekatter in Sweden) in processions through town to symbolize the food Lucia would have brought to the Christians. Lussekatter is traditionally eaten for breakfast on December 13th, although many Swedes also eat these buns during fika, which is the morning and afternoon coffee break that is enjoyed throughout the region.
Coach Michelle jokingly suggested having a fire extinguisher nearby because, believe it or not ,girls older than eleven usually wear REAL candles in their hair for the St. Lucia procession. You should also come hungry.
“Swedes love a good dinner party. They love good food and the proper drinks to go with each course. If someone catches your eye and offers you a toast, you should take a sip and then meet their eyes again as you lift your glass back at them.”
More about Coach Michelle
Coach Michelle grew up in Mexico and is a native speaker of Spanish as well as English. After high school, she went to Sweden for a year as an exchange student and fell in love with the people, the culture, everything. Coach Michelle attended community college while there and learned to speak Swedish fluently. She remains close to her host family and has been back to visit them. Coach Michelle took part in many cultural traditions: sang in the school’s choir, including Handel’s Messiah in Swedish at Christmas time; danced around the MayPole and even took a two-week bicycle tour all around Lake Vättern, the second largest lake in Sweden, with her Swedish friends. She currently teaches English and Spanish for Rosetta Stone.