December 13th is a special date in the Swedish calendar. Swedes celebrate St Lucia’s Day. It is a festival of light in the long, dark Swedish winter days. There are processions with girls bearing candlelit wreaths on their heads and lots of singing. Saffron buns form an important part of the celebration.
The Saffron buns are generally baked in an S-shape to resemble the outline of a sleeping cat. Two eyes are made out of raisins. These buns are known as Lussekatter in Swedish, meaning Lucia cats. Originally, the cats were known as the Devil’s cats. Over time, they confusingly became known as Lucifer’s cats that were said to ward off evil.
Like many legends the world over, there are multiple versions and the exact story seems to have become muddled down the ages. The Swedish custom traces back some 400 years, but the original St Lucia or St Lucy goes back to the 4th Century. It is said that Lucia of Syracuse took food to Christians hiding in Roman catacombs lighting her way with a candlelit wreath on her head. She became a martyr after being tortured by having her eyes gouged out. This led to her becoming the patron saint of the blind.
Festival of Light
Historically, December 13th was the shortest day in the Julian calendar. The long night was regarded as dangerous with powerful, dark spirits at work. Staying awake and eating during the night became a Swedish tradition that is believed to have started in 1764, but really took off in the 1900s. You can understand why a festival of light should become so popular during the long, dark Swedish winter.
Saffron is the most expensive spice. Cultivation requires a huge amount of land and a wait of 3 years to reach maximum yield. The spice is produced by picking and drying the 3 stigmas from each flower of Crocus sativus.The harvest has to be carried out by hand, resulting in high production costs. The best Saffron is said to come from Valencia in Spain, although many other countries also produce this expensive spice.
Cornish Saffron Buns
The Cornish also have their own version of Saffron buns for special occasions. Why not try one of the Swedish or Cornish recipes below during Advent?
References and Further Reading
- Bauer, Elise (2021): St. Lucia Saffron Buns. Simply Recipes.
- Britannica (2021): Saffron. Spice and Dye.
- Case, Frances (ed.) (2008): 1000 Foods you must try before you die. A Global Guide to the Best Ingredients. Quintessescence. London
- Cornwall Guide (2021): Cornish Saffron Buns.
- Duxbury, John (2021): Lucia saffron buns. Lussekatter. SwedishFood.com (includes recipe)
- Duxbury, John (2021): Saffron. SwedishFood.com
- Swedish Institute (2021): The Lucia tradition. What does midwinter have to do with white gowns and candles? It’s Swedish Lucia. Sweden.se. 1 June 2021.
- van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food Plants of the World. An Illustrated Guide. Timber Press. (p. 155).
- Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne (1987): Histoire naturelle et morale de la nourriture. Bordas (Quid du safran. pp. 384-7).
- Visit Saffron Walden (2021): The Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus). Saffron Walden Tourist Information Service.
- Visit Sweden (2020): Saffronbuns aka lussekatter – recipe. 23 December 2020
- Visit Sweden (2021): Lucia – bearer of light, hymns and Swedish treats. 6 December 2021
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.