Traditionally eaten for Santa Lucia on the thirteenth of December, lussekatter – also called lussebullar – have a nebulous history. One that’s laced with Christianity and paganism, German and viking heritage.
In fact, even the origin of the Lucia celebrations is quite elusive.
Lussinatta once coincided with the Winter solstice back in the 1300s when Europe still used the Julian calendar. During that night, the longest of the year, it was said that animals could talk and supernatural events could occur; Lussi, an evil figure (that holds many similarities with the german Perchta or the italian Befana) roamed the land along with her lussiferda, a horde of trolls and goblins, punishing naughty children and casting dark magic. People, forced to remain secluded, would eat and drink in an attempt to fight the darkness.
And as the years went by in the pre-Christian Norden, farmers started to celebrate the return of the light and the tradition of a goddess of lights took roots in the pagan folklore.
It was also the start of festivities of some kind – not to say Christmas, although it is believed that both Christian and heathen traditions started to blend from the 1100s . In fact the very origins of the word jul [Christmas] are blurry, with one occurrence dating back to Harald Hårfager who might have said: “Dricka jul!” [drink Christmas!].
During these celebrations, pig would get slaughtered, both for the gods and for the feast.
The tradition of a feast and offerings is documented in Erland Hofsten’s unpublished manuscript Beskrifning öfwer Wermeland, dating from the early 1700s. And although no further narrative is given, Hofsten believed in a pagan provenance.
The first printed description comes a few decades later in 1773 through Erik Fernows’ Beskrifning öfwer Wärmeland: “Man skall den dagen wara uppe at äta bittida om ottan, hos somlige tör ock et litet rus slinka med på köpet. Sedan lägger man sig at sofwa, och därpå ätes ny frukost. Hos Bönderne kallas detta ‘äta Lussebete’, men hos de förnämare ‘fira Luciäottan’.” And now if you please excuse my poor translation/paraphrase (Swedish is hard enough without having to deal with old Swedish): On that day, we should be up early (otta is an old Swedish word akin to night, but really means the time of the day when the night becomes the morning, around 4-5am) to eat, and for some, a shot of snaps would go down. Then we’d lay on the sofa and would later eat another breakfast. Amongst the farmers this would be known as to “eat Lussi’s bait”, but for the more affluents it was called a “Lucia morning celebration”.
One that spread from Värmland to Västergotland where C. Fr. Nyman encountered the custom for the first time, as described in his unpublished 1764 manuscript: “Rätt som jag låg i min bästa sömn, hördes en Vocalmusique utan för min dörr, hvaraf jag väcktes. Strax derpå inträdde först ett hvit-klädt fruntimmer med gördel om lifvet, liksom en vinge på hvardera axeln, stora itända ljus i hwar sin stora silfversljusstake, som sattes på bordet, och strax derpå kom en annan med ett litet dukadt bord, försedt med allehanda kräseliga, äteliga och våtvaror, som nedsattes mitt för sängarna… det är Lussebete .” That morning he was awaken by songs coming from outside his door. He then proceeded to meet a white-clad lady wearing wings and holding a large silver candlestick, which she placed on the table. And soon after another lady came in carrying a small table lined with cloth and full of food and drinks, which she laid in between the beds. In his story, C. Fr. Nyman, calls it Lussi’s bait, reinforcing not only the heathen terms of the celebration, but also hinting about the origin of the lussekatter.
It is noted in Nordisk familjebok 1912 that it was common to bake a peculiar bread shaped as a L and called “dövelskatt” [the devil’s tax] in south-western Sweden: “I sydvästra Sverige bakas till L. ett särskildt kultbröd, kalladt ‘dövelskatt'”.
And with different spellings like the Dutch duyvelskat, or the more common Lussebette, it’s hard not to think how the word we all thought meant Lucia’s cats was actually intended to be an offering to Lussi in exchange for her mercy. Or as it’s described in this interview of Anna Freij that the buns were tinted bright yellow with saffron to scare the devil away.
With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, Lucia no longer coincided with the winter solstice, but the customs of December 13th being the longest night of the year remained strong in the farming community throughout the centuries and up to the 1700s.
And it’s suspected that as Christianity grew in the north, the church tried to associate the pagan tradition with Santa Lucia, mostly based on phonetics and etymology (latin lux: light).
And just like that, the customs of eating saffron bread, something that was once reserved to the higher classes of southern Sweden, started to spread amongst rural Sweden, where wheat buns would be brushed with a saffron-infused syrup; with each province having their own distinctive shaped bun.
I hope that what was intended to be “just a recipe” five or so hours ago, brought some insight into this wonderful tradition, which like many others is a complex maze of cultural and historical layers tangled into each-other like morning hair.
Here are the sources I’ve used to this little research:
Come early November, every supermarket launches their annual production of lussekatter, which I suspect are loved by many.
As soon as you step in, the sweet scent of saffron gives away the trolleyful of golden buns waiting to be wrapped in small plastic bags. I have never tasted one from the shop, but from what I’m told they tend to be on the dry side.
My lussekatter, although certainly not authentic as their supermarket counterpart, are a dream to work with, to eat warm from the oven, or toasted the next day, to soak in an egg whisked with a dash of cream, milk, and sugar, and then pan-fried until golden, not unlike a
The recipe itself is a simple enriched dough that some would be tempted to call a pain au lait [milk bread]. As with any rich dough, I recommend using a stand-mixer, althought it’s definitely possible to make them by hand, simply follow the instructions given on that post.
A note on the saffron:
If you don’t have any ground saffron, simply bring the milk to the boil and soak/infuse the saffron threads in it for at least 30 minutes. You will have to wait for the milk to be completely cooled down before using in the recipe.
Makes around 20 buns.
for the raisins
a handful of raisins
for the dough
250 g unsalted butter
600 g strong flour
75 g caster sugar
18 g fresh yeast
0.5 g (one envelope) ground saffron (read note above)
7.5 g sea salt
375 g whole milk
Soak the raisins in boiling water and set aside to cool down. This can be done up to three days ahead, in which case, keep the soaked raisins in the fridge.
Slice the butter into thin 2-3mm thick slices. Set aside until needed.
In the bowl of a stand-mixer fitted with the dough-hook, place the flour, sugar, yeast, saffron and salt. Add the milk and mix on medium speed for around 10 minutes or until the dough detaches from the sides of the bowl and feels smooth, elastic and barely tacky. If you take a small piece of dough, you should be able to stretch it into a very thin membrane.
Add the butter, one small piece at a time continuously until all the butter is in – and knead it in for a further 10 minutes.
Place the dough in a large bowl, and clingfilm to the touch. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 12.
Line three baking trays with paper and set aside.
Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide in 50-55g pieces and cover loosely with clingfilm.
Take one piece and roll into a thin snake, approximately 30cm long, then form an S shape, curling both ends into a spiral. Place onto the prepared baking trays, making sure to give the buns plenty of space. And repeat with the remaining dough.
Cover with clingfilm and leave to proof until doubled in size, around 2-3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 20°C/fan 180°C.
Brush the top of the buns with the egg wash and press two raisins into each bun.
Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden-brown. Allow to cool down slightly.