Santa Lucia Day

December 13th is the feast day of Santa Lucia, a fourth century maiden who endured torture and execution rather than an undesirable marriage. She is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse in Sicily as well as the blind and all eye trouble.

Lucia was born to a wealthy family in Syracuse during the Diocletian Persecution, which was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. It is estimated that about 3000 Christians were executed under Diocletian’s reign. Legend has it that young Lucia was betrothed to a pagan, whom she refused to marry out of religious conviction. To drive home her devotion to Christ (or make herself less of an attractive marriage prospect), she dispersed her dowry to the poor. Her suitor was so angered by this rejection and loss of fortune that he reported her as a Christian to the local authorities.

There are a few different accounts of what happened here. One story is that this suitor had expressed admiration for her beautiful eyes, so she plucked them out and gave them to him, with a request to leave the rest of her for God. My mother once told a young man she didn’t want to date any more that she was joining the convent. Lucia pretty much used the same tactic, but way more bad-ass. That should get the message across, “I actually would rather gouge out my own eyes than be with you.” God was so pleased with this break-up method that he healed her eyes and they were more beautiful than before. This is why Santa Lucia is often pictured holding a tray of eyeballs.

Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is even more gruesome and less awesome. After being denounced by her one time admirer, she was condemned to work in a brothel. (The punishment for wanting to keep your chastity is work detail as a prostitute, what a sophisticated sense of irony those Romans had!) When the prison guards came to take her to her new job she was so filled with the Holy Spirit that they could not move her. After a mighty struggle that allegedly involved 100 men and 50 oxen, the guards decided to burn her where she stood. Miraculously the fire did not harm her. (Or maybe the guards were afraid of being asphyxiated or burning the place down by starting a fire indoors.) So finally they gouged her eyes out with a fork and stabbed her with a sword. This finally killed her.

How festive! Is there a better back story for a pre-Christmas, breakfast party?  Santa Lucia Day is popularly celebrated in Sweden where they do not make much use of the actual story of her life and martyrdom. Before the calendar was changed from the Julian to the Gregorian, December 13th was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. And Sweden has some of the shortest short days. The name Lucia means “Light” and on this day the oldest daughter in the family rises early, dons a white robe with a red sash, to symbolize both Lucia’s purity, and her martydom, and wears an evergreen crown with four lighted candles, as it is believed that Lucia wore candles on her head when she went into the catacombs where persecuted Christians hid to bring them food. This allowed her to light her way in the dark tunnels, while keeping her hands free to minister to the needy. The daughter wakes her family at dawn with a breakfast of coffee, gingerbread and saffron St. Lucia Buns. This greeting of the day symbolizes Lucia bringing back the light, as the days will begin to get longer again. The oldest girl can be accompanied in a procession by her younger sisters, also dressed in white and carrying candles and her brothers, the “Star Boys”, in white cone shaped hats adorned with stars representing the night Lucia is banishing or the Star of Bethlehem. If you have young children you may want to consider making a paper candle crown to avoid a tragic fire. Here is a link to a great example of how to make your own hazard free crown and star boy hat.

This is the official start of the Christmas Season in Sweden and is celebrated in schools, hospitals, town centers and businesses. The Lucia-Bride, as the white robbed girl is called, is a goodwill ambassador who visits the poor, the sick and the blind delivering food, money and spreading holiday cheer in the spirit of her namesake.

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Saint Lucia Buns

This recipe is adapted from The Great Scandinavian Cookbook, translated and edited by J. Audrey Elllison. This is an awesomely comprehensive cookbook from 1967 that I got for a friend at a used bookstore. It has all kinds of disgusting looking 1960s photos of weird Scandinavian foods, as well as very preachy and dated paragraphs on the importance of healthy eating. I found this recipe a little confusing as written, as the translation is for the UK, and is 40 years old, and I am a little thick about baking, so I have adapted it from my experience of making this, and hopefully it will make more sense to you too.

1 Tablespoon Saffron

2 packages active dry yeast

2 1/4 cup milk

14 Tablespoons Butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 egg

6 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup blanched almonds, chopped

For Brushing and Decorating

egg

Chopped Almonds

Raisins

Crushed Rock Sugar

Steps:

Crush the saffron with a mortar and pestal.

Heat the milk to about 90-100 degrees.

Mix a few tablespoons of warm milk with active yeast and a tablespoon of sugar. Set aside to activate.

Melt the butter. Add warm milk and saffron to melted butter.

Pour the milk, butter, saffron mixture into the yeast mixture.Stir in the salt, sugar about half the flower and most of the chopped almonds. Add the remaining flour gradually and work the dough until cohesive, smooth and shiny. Sprinkle a little flour on top, and cover with a cloth and set aside in a warm place to allow the dough to rise until doubled in size. (About one hour)

Knead the dough in the bowl for a little while, then turn it out onto a lightly flowered surface and knead it until smooth. (I found the dough to be extremely sticky, so I added more flour until it was handleable)

Divide the dough and roll it the pieces between your hands until you get long strips. Then form them into spirals. (These buns are often called, Lussekatter, or Lucia Cats because they resemble a cat curled up and sleeping.)

Preheat the oven to 480 degrees Farenheit.

Put the shaped dough onto a greased baking sheet and allow them to rise again for about 30 minutes. Brush with egg and sprinkle with crushed rock sugar and chopped almonds. Push a raisin into the center and the outer edge.

Bake the rolls for about 7-8 minutes.Saffron Buns

Breakfast Gingerbread (Smörgaskaka)

This recipe is also from the Great Scandinavian Cookbook.

4 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

7 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

2 teaspoons crushed cardamon

3/4 pint sour cream

1 cup molasses

3 1/2 tablespoons melted butter

Steps:

Preheat the Oven to 345 degrees Farenheit

Mix the four, baking soda, brown sugar and spices.

Beat the sour cream, molasses and butter together and fold them into the flour mixture. Pour the batter into a wll-greased bread pan.

Bake for a long time. This recipe says about one hour. I say more like 90 minutes. But that probably depends on your oven.

Serve with butter and marmalade.

Saint Lucia Eyeballs

This is not part of the traditional Swedish menu, but I thought when you are honoring a person who is famous for plucking out her own eyeballs, it is a shame to not commemorate that in any way you can. Plus, it’s good to start your day with a little protein, and not just pastries and coffee. So we have come up with a tasty little breakfast eyeball recipe.

Plain Yogurt

Honey

Grapes

Blueberries.

Steps:

Line a mini-muffin tin with red muffin cups.

Mix plain yogurt with honey. Fill the muffin cups with yogurt/honey mixture.

Cut grapes and blueberries in half. Place half a grape and half a blueberry on top of the yogurt.

Freeze the whole thing.

Voila! Eyeballs ready to be served on a platter.