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History of : Saint Lucia Buns

These golden treats are eaten on December 13th, brightening up dark winter days. But just how did they come to be associated with Saint Lucia and her feast day?

1. Who was Saint Lucia?

The latin word for light, lux, is the stem of the name Lucia, and is one of the reasons Saint Lucia has come to be known as the bearer of light in the dark winter days. She is also the patron saint of sight and the blind, hence the eyes being held in the image below. The golden background seen in many paintings of Saint Lucia is also indicative of the light she provides.

Prior to calendar reforms, December 13th was the shortest day in Scandinavia, and coincided with Saint Lucia day - the two celebrations of the winter solstice and saint became synonymous. Celebrating Saint Lucia's day as fully as you can is said to help one live through the dark winter days with enough light.

Nowadays, a Saint Lucia is nominated in almost every town, wearing a red sash to represent martyrdom, a white robe for purity and a crown with candles to symbolise the light she brings. Alongside the Lucia, other girls take part in the procession, dressed in white robes and boys as stjärngossar (star boys) wearing cone hats decorated with stars. Saint Lucia buns are enjoyed on this day and handed out during these processions to symbolise light in the darkness.

Saint Lucy by Francesco del Cossa (1472)

2. Lucy's... cats?

The Swedish word for Saint Lucia Buns is "Lussekatter": Lucy's Cats; this is a peculiar name, considering the apparent connection with the saint and her lack of connection with cats...

It is thought that perhaps the naming of these bakes is not inspired by Saint Lucia, but rather from the German 'christ-kindl' who was often accompanied by a devil figure.

Another theory is that the name comes from 'Lussi', an old folklore witch-like figure who would wreak havoc on December 13th in Norway. She brought with her an entourage of creatures, who smashed chimneys and generally caused trouble if one dared to go outside. The night was known as Lussi langnatt ( the long night of Lussi) and was considered a powerful and supernatural night.

Some think that the S shape of the buns are supposed to be a curled up cat, with the two raisins representing the eyes. The origin of this imagery may be traceable to the original name for these sweet treats: djävulskatter (the devil's cats). However, the original Scandinavian name of "devil's cats" probably stems from a Dutch feast-bread eaten in midwinter called duivekater meaning Devil's cake. It is unclear from where this cake's name came from!

Another theory of the buns shape is that they represent the ancient pagan symbol of the sun. Superstitious tendencies towards the buns are still prevalent, it is common folklore that eating Saint Lucia buns on the winter solstice was a way to ward off the devil.

3. Saint Lucia Bun Shapes

Lucy's buns actually come in many different shapes and sizes. The "cats" were in fact originally called lussegalt (Lucy's pigs) which can be seen in early Swedish cookbooks, and the diagram above!

"Cats" are not the only shape that these buns can take. In fact, they have different names depending on the shapes, and are collectively known as Lussebullar (Lucy's Buns). Each different shape has its own meaning, some are religious such as prästens hår (the priest's hair). Others have a meaning more related to nature such as buns called Gullvagnen, julvagnen or julkakan which refer to the suns path across the sky.

The variety in shapes shows how religious and pagan celebrations have been brought together in this celebration. It is thought that missionaries brought the concept of Saint Lucia to Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, but pagan celebrations for the shortest night (December 13th) already existed. The idea of saint Lucia may have also been brought over by sailors to Scandinavia from Italian sailors. Saint Lucia is, after all, the patron saint of Syracuse in Sicily, Italy.

Scandinavia's long history in the spice trade probably also provided an added ease of obtaining saffron (not usually endemic to Scandinavia...) to provide the bright yellow colour of the buns. Although, it would still have been very pricy and therefore it makes sense it was reserved for special occasions such as Saint Lucia day.

Saint Lucia buns provide a perfect example of the melding of pagan and religious celebrations of finding light in the darkness, whether that is wintertime and evil spirits or the darkness of the world without Christianity. Whatever the origin may be, the bright golden yellow of the buns from the saffron certainly brings light to the dark winter days.

Sources and further reading


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