St Lucia’s Day in Sweden: Bringing Light in the Winter Darkness

St Lucia’s Day in Sweden: Bringing Light in the Winter Darkness

Luciadagen, or St. Lucia’s Day,  is a special day in Sweden that is celebrated annually on December 13th. Also known as the Festival of Lights, St. Lucia’s Day occurs one week after St. Nikolaus’ Day. It is a wonderful tradition that is meant to bring light into the darkness of the long Scandinavian winter.

On St. Lucia’s day you will see thousands of young girls emerge from the darkness of a Swedish winters day and gently silence the crowds with a procession of light. Dressed as Lucia’s maidens, in flowing white gowns, each girl holds a candle and wears a wreath of glowing candles in her hair. Children solemnly proceed through cities, towns and churches, giving out saffron buns and singing Lucia’s beautiful melodies, dressed as gingerbread men, elves and stjärngossar.

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In Sweden, the winter solstice was formerly observed on December 13th (in accordance with the old Julian calendar). The date marked a pagan festival of lights in honor of the shortest and darkest day of the year–a time when it was believed that demons and spirits would plague the earth and animals could talk (not unlike early celebrations of Halloween). The threshing and slaughtering were expected to be done, as people braced themselves for the start of winter.

With time and the spread of Christianity, however, the Swedish winter solstice became enmeshed with the figure of Saint Lucia, and December 13th became a celebration in her honor–complete with costumes, music, processions, and glogg. 

Several legends exist to explain Saint Lucia’s martyrdom. In one version of events, young Lucia would sneak away during the night to bring food to starving Christians hidden in the catacombs of Rome. Traveling the dark tunnels, she placed candles in a wreath around her head, so she might carry as much food as possible to those starving underground. Eventually she was discovered and was put to death.

Swedish lore builds on the story of her death, telling the tale of a winter that brought terrible famine to Sweden. On the dark, bitter night of December 13th, a ship approached across Lake Vannern. The starving Swedes gathered on the shore to watch the ship approach and saw in the distance a woman dressed in white, standing at the helm, the light of the ship encircling her head with a gentle glow. Familiar with the Italian lore of Saint Lucia delivering food to the destitute Christians, the villagers believed she had come to rescue them from certain death.

The modern tradition of observance began in the 1700s and involves the eldest daughter in a family dressing up as a Lucia in a white dress with a red sash, and wearing a wreath of candles on her head (today, electric candles are often used). The Lucia’s crown is made with lingonberry branches, which are evergreen. The crown, together with the candlelight it carries, symbolizes the celebration of light in darkness, enduring through the long winter’s night.

The Lucia is accompanied by handmaidens, who each carry a candle, and star boys, who wear pointed paper hats and carry stars. The processions of the Lucia, handmaidens, and star boys typically end with a rendition of Santa Lucia (several Swedish variations exist of the Neapolitan tune), and often the Tipp Tapp song. Prior to the 1700s, when the Swedish population was still quite rural and agrarian, celebrations were far less formal. Children dressed up and went door to door singing, and receiving snacks and snaps in exchange.

Each year, Lucias are chosen in schools, offices, and towns–there is even a national Lucia chosen to be drawn around in carriage, visiting hospitals and senior homes. Though the holiday is most closely associated with Sweden, it is also celebrated in parts of Denmark, Norway, Finland, Bosnia, and Croatia. Some believe Lucia travels by donkey distributing presents, and children will leave a sandwich for the two travelers, just as many children across the world leave cookies and milk for Santa. To accompany celebrations, lussekats (a sweet saffron bun) are eaten in the morning, while in the evening, ginger biscuits accompanied by the mulled wine glögg.

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In the video below, you can hear the song that is traditionally sung during St. Lucia processions throughout Sweden. It is extraordinarily beautiful.

This St. Lucia’s Day may you and your family be both bearers and witnesses of light within the darkness. God Jul!

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Tasty Traditions: Scandinavian Glögg (Spiced Wine)

Tasty Traditions: Scandinavian Glögg (Spiced Wine)

Scandinavia is known for its frigid temperatures and shortened daylight hours during the winter time. It’s no wonder that the traditional mulled wine drink, Glögg, is a favorite during the coldest season of the year. Scandinavian Glögg (pronounced glook) is served warm, and is a great way to unwind after a long day spent outdoors in this wintry wonderland.

Drinking mulled wine dates back a long time in history and to begin with spices were added to less complex tasting wines. Wine was first recorded as spiced and heated in Rome during the second century. Ancient Greece also was a place where spiced wine was favored. The Romans sweetened their wine and added herbs and flowers.

During the Middle Ages, mulled wine was very popular in Europe. The herbs were also thought to have healing properties and to improve health. The Swedish King, Gustav Vasa, loved Claret, which was a blend of wine Rhen, sugar, honey, and spices. Lutendrank was the favorite drink of Swedish King Erik XIV. Two hundred and ten jugs of lutendrank were produced for his coronation in 1561.

The word Glögg comes from the word Glödga, which means to heat up. The phrase “Glödgat wine” appeared around 1609. In Europe people left behind the tradition of drinking spiced wine, but in Sweden it remained.

During the 1800s, Glögg became a Christmas tradition in Scandinavian countries like Sweden. Wine merchants began making their own versions, putting the wine in bottles, labeling them, and selling them. Today around five million liters of Glögg are consumed every year during the Christmas season.

The traditional Scandinavian mulled drink mixes wine and port with spices like clove, cardamom, and cinnamon to make for a brew that smells and tastes divine!

RECIPE: A SIMPLE GLOGG

Ingredients

  • Aquavit (or brandy or vodka)
  • Burgundy or pinot noir wine
  • Port wine
  • Raisins
  • White or brown sugar
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Cardamom seeds
  • One orange
  • One piece of ginger
  • Blanched almonds

STEP 1: Soak 1/2 cup of raisins in one cup of aquavit, brandy, or vodka. Soak for 30 minutes before proceeding to step 2.

STEP 2: Put a large pot on the stove, over high heat. Add one cup of water and 1/2 cup of sugar to the pot, and stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved.

STEP 3: Lower the heat to medium and add your spices – 2 sticks of cinnamon (each broken in half); 4 whole cloves ; 6 whole cardamom seeds, crushed by hand; a thinly shaved orange peel; and 1 small piece of ginger, peeled and cut in half. Stir again with wooden spoon. Do not allow the mix to come to a boil from this point on.

STEP 4: Add the raisin mixture, 2 cups of burgundy  or pinot noir wine and 2 cups of port wine.

STEP 5: Sweeten and spice to taste.

STEP 6: Strain, garnish with raisins and slices of blanched almonds. Serve hot off the stove.

NOTE: The drink can be made in advance and kept at room temperature. Be sure to warm it up before serving, however.

About the wine, port, and brandy. There is no need to invest in expensive wine, port, or brandy because the spices are going to preempt any innate complexity of a fine wine, but don’t use anything cheap. Remember, the sum will be no better than its parts. If you want to play, instead of brandy try using Swedish aquavit, a caraway flavored vodka popular in Scandinavia.

About the raisins. Golden raisins will work, but dark raisins are better.

About the cardamom. Cardamom comes in three forms: Pods, seeds, and powder. The pods look like orange seeds. Cardamom seed pods may be hard to find, so you may need to order them from a spice specialist like Penzeys.com, but don’t leave out the cardamom. Cardamom is the secret ingredient. The seeds within the pods are either black or tan, about 1/3 the size of peppercorns. If you can’t find pods and can only find seeds, use about 1 teaspoon of them. Do not use powder.

About the almonds. It is important to get naked cream-colored almonds that have had the shells and brown skins removed. The skins are bitter and full of brown coloring that can give the glögg a dusty texture. Do not use salted or smoked almonds. If you can only find almonds with skins, you can remove them by blanching them. Here’s how: Boil a pot of water, dump in the almonds, wait for the water to boil again, let them boil for about a minute, pour off the water, and rinse with cold water, and drain. The skins will slip right off if you pinch them.

About the cloves. Do not use powdered cloves.

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere! So, sit back, relax, and enjoy a Saintly Scandinavian delight.

 

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