Being of Scandinavian ancestry, my family celebrated Santa Lucia Day on December 13th. My mother would make Lucia buns and peppar kakar cookies in the days before and then in the early hours of Dec. 13th, when it was still dark outside, one of us girls would wear a crown of lighted candles and carry coffee, hot chocolate, the Lucia buns and cookies around to the other members of the family in their beds. We loved this tradition, and each year my sisters and I would take turns being the Lucia queen. My mother made the crown, and yes we used real candles. I remember one year the wax running down my hair and it taking some time to get it all cleaned up. My mother taught us the Lucia song and the words in Swedish, and we would sing this as we made our rounds.
Here is a short essay about the origins of Santa Lucia, excerpted from the Swedish website, www.Sweden.se:
Lucia December 13
by Agneta Lilja, Södertörn University College
The Lucia tradition can be traced back both to St Lucia of Syracuse, a martyr who died in 304, and to the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam’s first wife. It is said that she consorted with the Devil and that her children were invisible infernals. Thus the name may be associated with both lux (light) and Lucifer (Satan), and its origins are difficult to determine. The present custom appears to be a blend of traditions.
In the old almanac, Lucia Night was the longest of the year. It was a dangerous night when supernatural beings were abroad and all animals could speak. By morning, the livestock needed extra feed. People, too, needed extra nourishment and were urged to eat seven or nine hearty breakfasts. This kind of feasting presaged the Christmas fast, which began on Lucia Day.
The last person to rise that morning was nicknamed ‘Lusse the Louse’ and often given a playful beating round the legs with birch twigs. The slaughtering and threshing were supposed to be over by Lucia and the sheds to be filled with food in preparation for Christmas. In agrarian Sweden, young people used to dress up as Lucia figures (lussegubbar) that night and wander from house to house singing songs and scrounging for food and schnapps.
The first recorded appearance of a white-clad Lucia in Sweden was in a country house in 1764. The custom did not become universally popular in Swedish society until the 20th century, when schools and local associations in particular began promoting it. The old lussegubbar custom virtually disappeared with urban migration, and white-clad Lucias with their singing processions were considered a more acceptable, controlled form of celebration than the youthful carousals of the past. Stockholm proclaimed its first Lucia in 1927. The custom whereby Lucia serves coffee and buns (lussekatter) dates back to the 1880s, although the buns were around long before that.
Every family has its own Christmas traditions and ours also included many kinds of Christmas cookies. Peppar Kakar is a favorite, along with Spritz cookies. The Peppar Kakar are really a labor of love. They are time consuming and the decorating takes a strong and steady hand. My personal Christmas tradition is to attend the Nutcracker ballet. I have done so every year for at least the last 20 years, most of those in Florida. This last saturday I watched the Grand Rapids Ballet Company performance at the DeVos Performance Hall, accompanied by the Grand Rapids Symphony. It was very festive, colorful, and beautiful.
This year though, as the snowflake ballerinas twirled around on stage, real snowflakes swirled around outside. One of the best Nutcracker perfomances I have ever seen was the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle dancing the Maurice Sendak version. The PNB has been doing the Sendak version since 1983.
Nearly every year I purchase yet another nutcracker ornament. This is the newest one, purchased saturday night at the performance.