My family has always loved celebrating St. Lucy’s Day on December 13th. We have such fun making saffron buns, a traditional food for the day (full recipe below!). We start the dough early, allowing time for the dough to rise, we gather around our island and laugh as we roll the dough into long “snakes” that we then coil into “S” shapes. We can hardly wait to let the buns cool down before we try them, they are just so good! We cut out paper crowns, we read a book based on the life of St. Lucy, and we offer up thanks for a young woman who was willing to stand for her faith even if it meant being martyred.
Saint Lucy and My Daughter
This year, St. Lucy's Day is especially poignant to me. My oldest daughter just turned 18 and is now a senior in high school. She is applying to colleges and eagerly waiting for acceptance letters. With one foot in the high school world, she is also having to prepare for college. She is in that transitional phase where she is thinking about her future as a woman while leaving the girl that she was behind. She is discovering who she is, what she likes and what she doesn’t like, what her passions are and what she wants to pursue. Everything about her life right now is moving away from the past and embracing the future. Her world is opening, her future is bright, and only God knows what it holds.
As I thought about St. Lucy’s Day this year, I found myself wondering how old Lucy was when she died. And I discovered that she was 21, just three years older than my daughter. It hit me so hard this year that just like my daughter, St. Lucy was a daughter, a friend, and a member of her church. She, too, was transitioning into womanhood, discovering things for herself, and making decisions for herself. She, too, had passions, hopes, and dreams.
Saint Lucy the Martyr
But unlike my daughter, St. Lucy grew up during the most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Christianity was illegal during this time and many persecuted Christians fled and hid in catacombs. The people who were in hiding had very little food and St. Lucy devoted herself to providing relief. The catacombs were dark and in order to find your way around, you needed to carry candles. St. Lucy wanted to bring as much food as possible to the people so she needed to keep both of her hands free. She solved this problem by attaching candles to a wreath on her head.
St. Lucy lost her father when she was five years old, leaving her and her mother without a protective guardian. She and her mother were devout Christians and as St. Lucy grew older she made a vow to never marry and to give her life in service to the Lord. She also made a vow to give her dowry to the poor. Her mother suffered from a bleeding disorder and feared for her daughter’s future so she arranged for Lucy to marry a man from a wealthy pagan family. When St. Lucy’s betrothed discovered that her inheritance was being distributed to the poor, he reported her to the governor and St. Lucy was seized and ordered to offer a sacrifice to the emperor’s image. When she refused, she was martyred.
Processions with Gown, Sash, and Candles
Because of her deep devotion and her willingness to die for the Lord, St. Lucy is remembered and celebrated in countries all over the world. Large processions are held to celebrate the day. A special girl is chosen to be St. Lucy. She wears a white gown which symbolizes purity and a red sash for martyrdom. Like St. Lucy, she wears a crown of candles on her head. In the darkness she leads a procession of women who are all holding candles. Every aspect of the celebration has special significance; the name Lucy or Lucia means “light” and she is remembered for bringing light and hope to people in darkness on her feast day which occurs in the darkest time of winter.
On St. Lucy’s Day there is also a more intimate celebration in the home. A daughter in the family is chosen to represent St. Lucy. She rises early in the morning wearing a white gown and a red sash. She wears a crown made from branches with burning candles. The daughter wakes each family member up and serves them a cake called St. Lucy’s Crown, saffron buns, or gingersnaps and fresh coffee.
Another major symbol for St. Lucy’s Day is wheat. In Sicily, where St. Lucy is from, there is a legend that a great famine ended on St. Lucy’s Day when ships loaded with grain entered the harbor. Because of this, there are many traditions surrounding wheat. In Italy, it is traditional to eat things made from wheat berries. The dish that they typically eat is called cuccia which is boiled wheat berries mixed with ricotta and honey.
In Croatia and Hungary, it is traditional to plant grains of wheat on Saint Lucy’s Day. Every year on St. Lucy’s Day, wheat seeds are planted in soil on a pretty dish with a candle placed in the middle. If the seeds are kept moist, they will germinate and grow into plants that will be several inches high by Christmas. The new green shoots remind us of the new life born in Bethlehem. The candle reminds us of the Light of Christ that St. Lucy shared with her life.
How to Celebrate St. Lucy's Day
If you’d like to celebrate this special day, have your children create their own St. Lucy’s Day celebration. Have them dress in white with red sashes (anything white or red will do), make a crown of evergreens from your yard, make candles with construction paper, and place them in the crown. Help your children make saffron buns, gingersnaps or, if you are feeling adventurous, cuccia. Then help them to serve the treats to the rest of the family. Read about the life of St. Lucy and spend time offering thanks for a young woman who was willing to spread the light of Christ in the midst of great darkness, even to the point of death.
Recipe for Saffron Buns
3/4 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads (optional) 1 teaspoon plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar 1 1/4-ounce packet active dry yeast 3 1/2 to 4 cups all purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt The seeds from 3 cardamom pods, ground (optional) 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened 1/4 cup of sour cream 2 large eggs Raisins Glaze 1 egg, beaten
In a small pot, heat the milk, saffron, and 1 teaspoon of sugar together until the milk is steamy. Remove from heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Let cool until about 115 degrees, or warm to the touch but not hot.
Sprinkle the yeast over the warm saffron-infused milk and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes until foamy.
In a mixer, whisk together 3 1/2 cups of the flour, remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, salt and ground cardamom (if using).
Make a well in the center of the flour and add the yeast milk saffron mixture, the eggs, the butter, and the sour cream. Mix the ingredients until well incorporated.
Switch to the dough hook of your mixer (if using, otherwise knead by hand). On low speed start to knead the dough. Slowly add additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to incorporate after each addition. Do this until the dough is still a little sticky to the touch, but does not completely stick to your hands when you handle it.
Shape the dough into a ball and place in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. (Note at this point you can make ahead and refrigerate overnight if you wish.)
Let sit in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size. (One way to tell that the dough is ready is that you poke your finger in it and it takes quite a bit of time for the indentation left by your finger to go away.)
When the dough has doubled in size, gently press it down and knead it a couple of times. Break off a piece and form it into a ball about 2 inches wide. Roll the ball out into a snake, about 14 inches long. Then curl the ends in opposite directions, forming an “S” with spirals at each end. Place on a lined baking sheet and repeat with the rest of the dough.
Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot until the dough shapes double in size, 30 minutes to an hour.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a pastry brush, brush some beaten egg over the tops and sides of the uncooked buns. Place raisins in the centers of the “S” spirals.
Place in the oven and bake at 400°F for about 10 to 11 minutes (turning halfway through cooking to ensure even browning), until the buns are golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes before eating.