How to Celebrate Santa Lucia Day the Traditional Swedish Way

The Swedish Santa Lucia Festival is held on December 13 to bring light and hope during the winter solstice.

Start the Christmas season by staging an at-home celebration in honor of the Swedish Santa Lucia Festival. The annual holiday is observed on December 13, which is close to the winter solstice and the shortest days of the year. The event honors the charitable work of St. Lucy (or Santa Lucia), an Italian martyr known for her compassion and generous nature. In Sweden, the eldest daughter leads a procession that morning, armed with breakfast and a wreath of candles on her head to light the darkness. In my family, the celebration starts early in the morning with traditional Swedish treats, coffee, and a simple procession.

girl holding candle while wearing traditional wreath on head with lit candles in celebration of St. Lucy's Day
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Who Was St. Lucy?

Santa Lucia's Day originated in Scandinavian countries. Legend has it that St. Lucy would secretly bring food to persecuted Christians in Rome hiding in the catacombs, wearing candles on her head to keep her hands free and illuminate the way. In fact, the name Lucia comes from the Latin word "lux", meaning "light". Today, there are St. Lucy dolls (remember the iconic Kirsten American Girl Doll?), figurines, and ornaments. Like many winter traditions, Santa Lucia's Day festivals are now held worldwide, promoting a culture of giving and a sense of community.

When Is Santa Lucia's Day?

St. Lucia's Day is celebrated primarily in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and some Swedish-speaking areas of Finland on December 13. This year the holiday falls on Monday, December 13, 2021.

How My Family Celebrates Santa Lucia's Day

Here are a few of the meaningful ways my family observes Santa Lucia's Day at home.

The Procession

As a child, dressed in white nightgowns, cinched at the waist by a red ribbon, plus battery-operated crowns of greenery on our heads (modernizing the real candles used in the past), my sister and I simulated our own ceremony that morning. We headed to our parents' bedroom bearing a simple folk-art tray draped in my Swedish grandmother's hand-stitched linens, offering breakfast sweet rolls, ginger cookies, and coffee.

While tradition has the eldest daughter wearing the crown, my sister and I served as co-presenters. Often other daughters, or "handmaidens," hold a candle, while sons, the "star boys," carry stars on sticks and have tall paper cones on their heads. The littlest are the Christmas "elves" who bring up the rear, carrying small lanterns.

Food and Drink

After the morning procession, lussekatter rolls (yeast buns flavored with saffron, cinnamon, and raisins), coffee, and pepparkakor cookies (an essential ginger Christmas cookie made with spices and molasses) are served. In Sweden, the saffron buns are curved into s-shapes, with two raisins for eyes, to mimic curled-up cats. While no one is sure about the cat connection, some believe the name Lucia was associated with Lucifer (Satan), and in Medieval Europe, cats were believed to represent the devil. Additionally, saffron may have been chosen due to its pricey stature with the Swedish upper class.

Also, a traditional St. Lucia sweet bread, flavored with orange zest and garnished with an orange juice glaze, is often served. It is braided to resemble the crown of greenery and decorated with red ribbons and candles to serve as a centerpiece for the table.

Swedish glogg is also served on Santa Lucia's Day. Scandinavians adore this rich and zesty mulled sweet wine drink and entertain with it throughout the season. You can make your own by blending red wine, whiskey, and rum with various spices.

For a fuller breakfast, I have made thin Swedish pancakes using a special plett pan. I slather the finished pancakes in traditional lingonberries and dust them with powdered sugar.

If you are not interested in cooking from scratch, IKEA often carries most of these delicacies, along with Swedish meatballs and jarred fish for a more savory fare. I've found that store-bought Anna's Ginger Thin Swedish Cookies ($8, Walmart) are a tasty and convenient substitute for pepparkakor, too!

Spirit of Giving

While my own family festival always ended with the morning feast, Swedish households often extend the celebration later that day. Sharing random acts of thoughtfulness, children in the community don the same white robes and head wreaths to parade around town, often visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and social service centers. They sing festive songs and share treats, bringing comfort and joy in the midst of the darkness

One easy way to honor this sentiment without a lot of fanfare is to plan a simple, local family outing that afternoon to pass out small gifts to those often who could use a little extra cheer: bus drivers, co-workers, police officers, nurses, public works staff members, and others. Having your children select the recipients helps them appreciate the true spirit of the season, just like St. Lucy, hundreds of years past.

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