Growing up with a Swedish mother, my sister and I celebrated this quaint, Scandinavian holiday every year on December 13th. To us, Santa Lucia Day meant feasting on breakfast bread laced with cardamom and saffron, dressing up our American Girl doll, Kirsten, in her special Lucia outfit and parading her about the house, all whilst garbling the lyrics to our favorite Swedish song about Christmas at the tops of our lungs.
In Sweden, the oldest daughter would wake up before dawn, wear a white dress, red sash and a wreath with real candles in her hair. Her younger brothers and sisters would also wear white and traipse as quietly as possible around the house in the wee hours of the morning. She would wake up the other members of the family (typically bearing strong coffee and scrumptious saffron rolls), walking ever so carefully, singing a traditional song to brighten the gloom and chill of winter.
The holiday commemorates Saint Lucy, a woman who defied death-by-burning in the 4th century, but is also steeped in tradition that predates Christianity and focuses on the annual struggle of darkness and light, a feature in much of Scandinavian folklore. Some legends even tell of an ancient witch called Lussi, who, along with her followers of trolls, demons and spirits would try to steal away sleeping children through chimneys, who had behaved mischievously during the past year (sound familiar?) Only a bright fire, good cheer, and a pinch of saffron were said to keep the witch at bay.