The original Lucia was born in the late third century AD in Syracuse, Sicily, at a time when Christians were forced to hide in the depths of the catacombs in order to avoid persecution. Lucia secretly brought food to them, and to light her way through the darkness underground, she wore a crown of candles on her head so that both her hands would be free to carry the food. The tradition of this candle crown lives on, in the way in which Lucia is commemorated today in homes and churches all over Sweden.
In the morning of December 13th the eldest daughter of the house dresses as Lucia, in a long white gown tied around the waist with a red ribbon (symbolising the saint's martyrdom). On her head she wears a crown of fresh greenery and lighted candles. Traditionally these are real candles, but the safety-conscious might prefer to use battery-powered ones.
If "Lucia" has younger siblings these may be her attendants. Her sisters will wear white robes with tinsel tied around their waists and heads, whilst her brothers will wear white robes and cone hats decorated with stars. Each will carry a single candle.
The children sing the traditional Sankta Lucia song as they serve their parents a festive breakfast consisting of coffee or mulled wine, together with special buns called Lussekatter. One of the legends of Saint Lucia is that she was blinded but her eyesight was miraculously restored, and she is often portrayed in art with her eyes on a plate. The shape of the buns, and the stragegically-placed currants used to decorate them, represent Lucia's eyes.
If you'd like to try making some Lussekatter, here is a simple recipe. To make twelve buns, you will need:
300 ml whole milk
1 pack (0.5g) saffron
75g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
500g strong white bread flour
100g golden caster sugar
1 sachet (7g) fast-acting yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten, plus a little extra for glaze
a little oil
Put the milk into a small pan and heat gently until it starts to steam. Use a pestle and mortar to grind the saffron strands into a powder, and add this to the pan of milk along with the butter. Swirl the mixture around until the butter has melted, then set aside and leave to cool until it is lukewarm to the touch.
In a large bowl mix together the flour, caster sugar, salt and yeast. Make a well in the middle of the dry mixture, and pour in the milk mixture and the beaten egg. Mix together to form a sticky dough, then turn out on to a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic (this will take about ten minutes). Put the dough into a lightly-oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film, then leave the bowl in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough has doubled in size.
Knock back the dough and divide it into twelve equal portions. Keep the pieces covered with oiled cling film whilst you make the rolls - this will stop the dough from drying out. Take each piece of dough in turn and roll it out into a 30cm-long strand. Roll up one end into the middle, turn it over and roll the other end into the middle, forming the dough into an S-shape. Put all the buns on to a large parchment-lined baking tray, lightly cover with oiled cling film, then leave them to prove until they are almost doubled in size. In the meantime, heat the oven to 200C (180C if you have a fan oven) or Gas Mark 6.
When the buns are ready to bake, remove the cling film, brush them with beaten egg, and press a currant into the centre of each spiral. Put the tray in the oven and bake for around 15 minutes. Allow to cool before serving. The buns are best eaten on the day they are made.
For a light-hearted but informative piece about the Lucia celebrations, take a look at this.