For expats, the holidays can be a melancholy time. But not for a group of Charleston Swedes. Each year Swedish natives gather at St. Johannes Lutheran Church on the corner of Anson and Hasell streets for their annual Saint Lucia celebration.
The Dec. 13 Feast of Saint Lucia has roots in pagan traditions, but today it’s celebrated across Scandinavia in honor of the Sicilian saint (AD 310) who, as the story goes, was seeking help for her mother’s illness when an angel appeared to her. She thus became a Christian but was persecuted for her beliefs. When asked to renounce her faith, Lucia allegedly refused and was put to the stake, but would not die. According to hagiography, only when she was allowed the Christian sacrament did she finally pass away. To celebrate the saint, each year Swedish girls — be they in Stockholm or at the St. Johannes Church celebration — dress in all white with one donning a crown of candles as tribute to Lucia who symbolizes light.
Then there’s the feast, says Camilla Nilsson. “We bring our traditional ‘julbord’ which is like a Christmas smörgåsbord,” she says. There’s ham, pickled herring, prinskorv (little hot dogs), meatballs, beet salad, boiled egg halves, liver pâté, lox, red cabbage, and Jansson’s Frestelse, a potato cassarole with heavy cream and tiny little pieces of anchovies. And, of course the Nordic mulled wine glögg.
“You mix this with either red wine or vodka,” Nilsson says. “It tastes like cinnamon, cloves, and oranges.”
For dessert, traditional Swedish candies like toffee with almonds, marzipan, and chocolates are prepared, along with Christmas porridge made with heavy cream, round rice, eggs, and cinnamon sticks. “You sprinkle cinnamon when it’s served and pour milk over it.” Nilsson says. And nearly ever Swedish home will display a gingerbread house too. But the crowning component of the feast are the Lucia buns, or lussekatter, made with raisins and saffron.
“You usually get up really early, make coffee, heat up the buns, then get dressed up and go in the Lucia procession either to your parents, grandparents, school, town square, old people’s home,” says Nilsson. This event is reenacted each year by the expats at St. Johannes Church. But while the group of Charleston Swedes deliberates amongst themselves for who gets to play Lucia, in Sweden it’s a much more arduous task.
“Every town and school in the whole country votes in the days before on their fave Lucia,” explains Nilsson. “She becomes the main girl with the candles in her hair.” Then when the procession begins, Lucia, along with her cadre of ladies, walk in a line singing songs. “You usually get up on a stage, sing lots of songs, then walk out. Then afterwards you have coffee and buns,” says Nilsson.
Last year about 50 Swedes attended the Charleston Saint Lucia celebration. And just like last year, this weekend young and old, new to the city and long-time residents, will fill the church’s gym with plates upon plates of food. For Nilsson, who only makes it back home to Vinslöv, Sweden for Christmas every couple of years, the event is a way to hold on to her native traditions.
“The Charleston Saint Lucia Day is important to me because it’s something I’ve done with my family and friends since I could walk,” Nilsson says. “It brings back memories of dressing up and singing to my grandma with my brothers. Seeing my friends who have had children here partake in the same traditions we did back home with all the Christmas songs that fill up the room under candlelight, like ‘Silent Night,’ is magical.”
(Makes 14 buns)
3/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp. saffron threads
1 tsp. plus 1/4 cup white, granulated sugar
1 1/4-oz. packet active dry yeast
3 1/2 to 4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp/ kosher salt
Seeds from 3 cardamom pods, ground (optional)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup of sour cream
2 large eggs
In a pot, heat the milk, saffron, and one teaspoon of sugar together until the milk is steamy. Remove from heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Let cool until about 115°F, or warm to the touch. Sprinkle the yeast over the saffron-infused milk and let sit for five to 10 minutes. In a bowl of a stand-up mixer whisk together 3 1/2 cups of the flour, remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, salt, and ground cardamom. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the milk-saffron mixture, eggs, butter, and sour cream. Mix the ingredients until well incorporated.
Switch to the dough hook of your mixer. On low speed 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. Shape the dough into a ball and place in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let sit in a warm place for one to two hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
When the dough has doubled in size, knead it, then break off a piece and form it into a ball about two-inches wide. Roll the ball out into a snake, about 14 inches long. 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. 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 cook 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 five minutes before eating.