In Sweden today, they’ll be celebrating Lucia Day with lights and treats and song.

My paternal grandmother is Swedish (her parents – my great-grandparents – emigrated to the US from Sweden as young adults; my grandmother was born in the US). My family always celebrated holidays and special occasions with Swedish food and traditions. But we never celebrated or acknowledged Lucia Day! In fact, I never heard of Lucia Day until I was a much older child, and living far away from my Swedish family. (Trust me, I would have been all over that costume . . . with fire-on-my-head!) In fact, I learned more about Lucia Day from Erin’s American Girl doll, Kirsten, than I ever did from my Swedish family.

So I decided to delve into this tradition-of-my-heritage . . . that I never celebrated!
Here’s what I learned . . .

Lucia Day – also called Saint Lucy’s day – can be traced back to the 4th century. A Christian feast day, it commemorates the martyr Lucia of Syracuse, who, as legend has it, brought food to Christians hiding in Roman catacombs, lighting her way with a candlelit wreath on her head. December 13 was the historic Julian calendar’s shortest day, and according to Swedish folklore, the long night was dangerous, with dark spirits out in force. Staying awake was paramount, and eating helped – another connection to the small feast associated with today’s Lucia celebration. Lucia made her first recorded appearance in a Swedish rural home in 1764, but the custom really established itself in the 1900s. Now, Lucia celebrations happen throughout Sweden — in churches, townhalls, and even in restaurants. Celebrations are also broadcast on radio and TV.

Leading the procession, Lucia is trailed by handmaidens (‘tärnor’), star boys (‘stjärngossar’), and gingerbread men (‘pepparkaksgubbar’). Lucia’s defining feature is the lit-up wreath on the top of her head. Traditionally, real candles were used, but for safety reasons they’ve been replaced by battery-powered ones. The handmaidens typically wear glitter or a wreath (without candles) in their hair, and glitter or a decorative red ribbon around their waists. Star boys wear all-white – just like Lucia and the handmaidens – with cone-like hats and star-adorned sticks. The lantern-carrying gingerbread men sport full gingerbread costumes.

Not only the bearer of light, Lucia also offers an assortment of treats — gingerbread biscuits and an S-shaped saffron bun called a “Lussekatt” – a treat almost as classic as the cinnamon bun. (Apparently, many Swedes would find it sacrilege to eat a Lussekatt at any other time than Lucia and the weeks leading up to Christmas.) Small cups of “glögg” (mulled wine) are shared as the traditional Lucia Day drink, along with hot coffee or cocoa.

Sounds fun (and tasty), doesn’t it?

You can hear/watch a Swedish Lucia celebration for yourself (the music is lovely) . . .


My Swedish family may not have made much of Lucia Day . . . but we did nibble on Lussekatt and sip glögg at the holidays! Glögg is one of my favorite winter beverages. It’s easy to make, although you do need to plan ahead a little bit. Here’s my favorite glögg recipe . . . maybe you’d like to try some yourself.

Swedish Glögg

Servings: Makes about 1 1/2 quarts (I keep my leftovers in a container in the refrigerator and re-heat whenever I want a glass.)


2 cinnamon sticks, broken into (small-ish) pieces

1 tsp cardamom pods (or you can use cardamom seeds)

1 small piece ginger, peeled

Grated zest of one orange

6 whole cloves

1 cup vodka, whiskey, or Aquavit (I usually use vodka)

1/4 cup chopped fruit (I use dried cherries, apricots, and dates, but whatever you like is fine)

1/4 cup raisins

1 750-ml bottle dry red wine

1 cup ruby port or Madeira


1. Crush the cinnamon and cardamom using a mortar and pestle (or put them on a cutting board and crush them with the bottom of a heavy pot). Put them in a small glass jar and add the ginger, orange zest, cloves, and vodka (or other alcohol), and dried fruit. Let stand for 24 hours (or so).

2. Strain the vodka through a fine sieve into a large saucepan; discard the spices. Add the red wine, port or Madeira, and heat over medium heat just until bubbles start to form around the edges.

3. Serve the glögg hot in mugs, with a few almonds and raisins in each one. Keep any remaining glögg warm over very low heat until ready to serve (do not let it boil). (If you’re serving glögg for a party or gathering, you can leave it on very low heat for hours.)

Notes: Some people add sugar to the mix when they add the wine and port, but I do not. It is traditional to “float” raisins and blanched almonds in the glögg when you’re serving it, but I don’t do that either. My recipe is loosely based on this one from Marcus Samuelsson; I’ve made several modifications over the years. I use inexpensive wine and port when I make glögg — and no one ever complains. 


If you’re wondering what this “advent calendar” is all about, you can read my “intro” post here.