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Saffron Buns and Candlelight

December 22, 2011

“What smells like delicious?” asked my housemate as he walked through the door last Wednesday night.

“Great!” I said, because I had misheard his question as a compliment.  After exchanging a few more confused sentences, I managed to communicate that what smelled like delicious was the pan of Lucia buns rising on the table.  “Because yesterday was Saint Lucy’s Day,” I explained to him.

My housemate, who is Catholic and fairly sure that I am not, looked at me quizzically.  “I didn’t think you were the type to celebrate saint’s days.”

“It’s a tradition in Sweden,” I said.  “The oldest unmarried woman in the house puts on a white dress and a red sash and a crown of candles, and leads a procession to bring all the grown-ups breakfast in bed.  Sort of a ‘Hey, it’s really dark and we need a party’ kind of holiday.  Though sometimes I think it’s a clever trick by parents to get their daughters to bring them buns and coffee in bed, by offering the chance to dress up in special costumes.”

My housemate tried to convince me that that would never work on boys.  I pointed out that boys do it too, dressing up in pointy hats and carrying star-topped wands, but he remained skeptical.

All the things I told him are true, but I left out the solemnity, the joy, and my unshakable, illogical conviction that celebrating Lucia Day is essential to the proper functioning of the universe.

My family has celebrated Lucia Day since before I was born.  I remember my older sister waking me up in what seemed like the wee hours of the winter morning.  We’d put on our Lucia gowns – oversized white T-shirts with white eyelet gathered around the bottom, ghostly images of the summer T-shirt dresses my mom also made us.  My sister got the red ribbon around her waist and the crown of electric candles.  It was a Frankenstein’s monster of a crown;  the battery pack dangled off the back, the sizing adjustment was held together with electrical wire, and each white plastic candlestick was topped with a black lightbulb socket, slightly askew, which my dad had cobbled on when he found that small American lightbulbs could not fit into Swedish lightbulb sockets.  For all its oddities, I envied that crown and looked forward to the day when I would get to wear it.  For the time being, I wrapped tinsel around my head and waist.

Barefoot and shivering a little in my old and drafty house, we crept down the stairs to the kitchen, futilely trying not to make the stairs creak.  That might wake up our parents, which would spoil the surprise.  In the kitchen my sister turned on the coffee maker, which our parents had set up the night before, and while it bubbled we arranged buns on trays: the yellow S-shapes of the traditional Lucia buns on one side, the spirals of cinnamon buns on the other, since I did not like the bitterness of saffron.

Then it was back up the dark cold stairs – my sister, walking smoothly, took the tray with the coffee – singing the song whose words we had learned by rote and didn’t understand.

Naten gor tunyafyet
Rhun gor och stuva
Kri yor som sjofellet
Stugorna ruva.
Do i vor merkahus
Stiger med tendalius
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

I had a vague idea – someone must have told me – that the song was about a dark house and Lucia walking though it, bringing light. I didn’t need the words, though;  I knew what Lucia Day was about.  It was about the blue dusk that settled earlier and earlier and the clench of frost in the dark of long nights, and it was about light spilling out of windows where families gathered, waiting for the return of the sun.  Lucia brought the sun – my sister, walking up the stairs in front of me with her discombobulated crown of electric candles, bearing buns and coffee.

At the top of the stairs we knocked on my parents’ door.  Light would bloom under the doorjamb, we’d hear a shuffle of feet, and then the door would creak open.  There we’d lose our dignity, and both pile onto our parents’ bed to eat breakfast with them, snuggling our cold feet under the covers.  It was the only day in the year we were allowed to eat in bed, and we stretched the privilege out nearly to lunchtime, carefully drinking our cocoa as our parents drank their coffee, sweeping up crumbs as they fell, and nestling into the love and light and warmth of being a family on a winter morning, secure in the knowledge that this year, too, the sun would return.

You can imagine my confusion when I learned, some time in elementary school, that the winter solstice was not on December 13th, but instead nearer to the 20th.  Lucia Day was obviously a solstice celebration; why, then was it on the wrong day?  If people in the past had mistaken the date, why had they not moved it when they learned better?  It made a little more sense when I learned about the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which changed the date of the solstice.  Still curious, I looked up the story of St. Lucy and found that she had been martyred for refusing to marry a pagan.  Artwork often depicts her bearing, not buns, but her gouged-out eyeballs on a platter before her.  She bore very little resemblance, I thought, to the woman whose holiday I celebrated.  It bothered me then.  It still bothers me now.  I cannot manage to reconcile the inconsistencies and the divergent images of Lucia.

I know what Lucia Day has always meant to me.  Does this give me leave to ignore the parts that give me pause?  I don’t think so.  But I want there to be one whole story, and I feel like there is some crucial link that I cannot see.

For the time being, this leaves me with two Lucias.  One supposedly died gruesomely in Rome in the early fourth century.  The other is a goddess of light, to whom I sing wordless songs when the winter grows dark.  Her presence is invoked in every candle-crowned daughter treading across cold floorboards.  She does not bring the sun itself, but rather just enough light to tide us over as nights lengthen.  Because make no mistake: It’s not over yet.  As we sink into the silence of the solstice, the darkness will yet grow deeper.  It’s a good time for falling asleep by the fire and dreaming, or for stepping outside and looking up at an eternity of stars.  In some ways the glimpses of light only make the darkness darker.  My eyes might adjust if there were only night, but the dazzle of a candle flame makes true darkness loom closer, and shadows dance around firelight.  I might fall asleep if there were only night, but how can I fall asleep when some trace of light remains?  Instead I keep my vigil through the winter nights, blanketed in darkness, waiting for it to speak.

If it does I will offer it a bun, fresh from the oven and smelling of summer fields.

Lucia buns.
3/4 cup milk
2 pkgs dry yeast or 2 cakes compressed yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
2/3 cup sugar
5 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
a pinch or two of saffron

1. Scald milk.  Crumble saffron into it, to taste.  Cool to lukewarm.  Add yeast to lukewarm water in mixing bowl and stir until dissolved.  Stir in milk and sugar.
2. Beat in 2 cups flour until smooth. Add butter, eggs, salt and beat until well mixed.  Add remaining flour.  Knead until smooth and elastic.
3. Place in greased bowl, cover well, and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1.5 hours.  Punch down and again let rise until double in bulk, about 3/4 hour.
4. Shape buns: pull off balls of dough about 1.5 inches in diameter, roll into ropes, curl into tight S-shapes.  Poke a raisin into the center of each curl of the S.  Brush buns with egg white mixed with some water.
5. Bake at 350º F for about 12 minutes.

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