So…as of December 21, at 6:03pm, it’s officially winter. The good news is that you and I have both made it through November. I don’t know how you did it, but I did it by following my own advice of last month and battling the blackness of early sunsets with one of them low-budget, post-Thankgiving fitness deals. I’m 19 days and probably 15 classes into the aforementioned “30 days for $30” yoga trial, and I must say that I haven’t lost any weight or figured out how to stand on my hands. But the world going dark at 4 p.m. has also not yet forced me into a fetal position.
Still, the heavy snow hasn’t started in yet and the Pagan clock has only just struck solstice, so I know better than to relax my cold-weather hypervigilance. Now, in these darkest nights of the year, is the time to turn to the Nordic countries for inspiration.
The snowy season in Sweden begins in October and runs straight through May. That’s right, May. A typical early January day in Northern Sweden involves temperatures around five degrees Fahrenheit and just over four hours of daylight. No one (and I mean no one) knows how to get through the Winter like Scandinavians do. So here’s what you should steal from them this December: St. Lucia’s Day.
Typically celebrated on the 13th of December, Saint Lucia is worth holding a belated party for and/or should influence whatever other holiday-time celebrations you’re planning.
I’ve been lucky enough to have two friends who regularly threw St. Lucia parties in Boston for years (though neither lives here now, so feel free to invite me to yours…) Each one had a different approach, but the bottom line seemed always to boil down to down to three things: 1) Serve a bottomless pot of something called glögg 2) Light a shit-ton of candles. Not eight. Not 25. As many as you can get your hands on 3) Stay up all night singing, laughing and eating with friends. Really those three things by themselves are enough to make the longest or coldest or darkest night of the year instantly fun, but there are also a few nice optional add ons that you can use to make any holiday party even more Scandinavian and/or Winter-busting.
You can find a lot of official information about the holiday on the Internet, but here is some homespun St. Lucia day background and a few suggestions from the biggest expert I know on the subject, Megan Dickerson. (She’s also an expert on playing, which helps a lot when you’re trying to get non-Swedish adults to sing children’s songs in Swedish, and is Manager of Exhibition Development at The New Children’s Museum in San Diego.)
A 3rd generation Swedish-American on her mom’s side, Megan’s been celebrating St. Lucia day since she was very a tiny person. “The holiday was originally part of advent— a celebration of light— but then became also about surviving the [1800s] famine. That’s why we eat Potatiskorv.” I’m unsure what Potatiskorv is (it’s a sausage deliciously weighted in the direction of potato that I’m hoping to find a local source for,) so she takes me down to the basics.
“The way it works is that the oldest daughter— and I am the oldest daughter— gets up early on St. Lucia day and serves everyone breakfast in bed.”
“You wear a crown, which at my house—you couldn’t go on Amazon in those days to get the electric kind—was a regular advent wreath with a little padding to make it fit on my head and some actual candles dripping wax on my hair.” “You’re also supposed to wear a white gown, which, well…it was just my nightgown…” “Then later in the day you go as a [nuclear] family and bring lussekatter and pepparkakor (saffron buns and special ginger snaps) to your grandparents. Then there’s supposed to be a St. Lucia day pageant at school, and in the evening, there’s a procession [towards the church usually] where you bring lussekatter and pepparkakor your neighbors.”
When she was very small, Megan thought that everyone wore their nightgowns and flaming headdresses with their families around the holidays, and was shocked to learn that it was just happening at her house. Then, when she was a bit older, her family belonged to a Swedish American organization that hosted St. Lucia Day parties and processions and she was finally able to understand what was really a part of the tradition and what was more makeshift.
I love these stories (and that she’s telling them to me via Skype while wearing a St. Lucia crown.) They remind me of a St. Lucia party she hosted on an icy night in Jamaica Plain, where everyone drank heavily from about 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., and then she led us (wearing a flaming crown that we were constantly trying to adjust,) down the block to hand out saffron buns to any neighbors willing to open the door. We sang some songs (or rather she sang them, and the rest of us mumble-hummed our terrible approximation of Swedish sounds) and then hit the next house. It was kind of like reverse-trick-or-treating at midnight. People were extremely tolerant.
When I ask her about another St. Lucia party she hosted where she had dozens of guests tromp around dancing and singing in a circle in the dark in her back yard on frozen crunchy grass with candles threatening to tip over in every direction the whole time, she stifles a giggle. “I made that up. It’s not part of the traditional celebration. We were just singing children’s songs from Mike and Else’s Swedish Songbook. Probably the most authentic thing I ever had us do was the door-to-door procession with the lussekatter.”
What else was made up? Apparently the multitude of infused vodkas we drank at those parties (make these: all you need is vodka and spices like cardamom, saffron, pepper or tarragon—plus about 3 days notice….) were 100% optional. As was the gravelax (lightly pickled, cold-cured fish), the cabbage/beet salads and the meatballs. “Those were all just drawn from the foods that we normally had on Christmas at my house.” (Megan’s family served the traditional Christmas smörgåsbord, julbord—a lavish spread of meat, fish, cheese and salads…) And glögg (a mulled wine)? “Well, you definitely drink it on St. Lucia day, but you drink it at a lot of other holidays too.”
Whether she made things up, borrowed them from other holidays, or just had us do them for her own perverse entertainment, these parties were among the best ways I’ve ever experienced to combat the misery of bitter cold New England Winters. Nothing, not even the worst MBTA service, would keep people from coming to these events on windy, 5-10 degree nights.
Even though St. Lucia day proper has passed, steal from Megan’s smörgåsbord of somewhat-to-actually-related-to-St. Lucia Day activities, unusually flavored food-stuffs and drinks. They (and wearing a candelabra on your head) will make any holiday party more interesting. But most importantly, stay up all night with friends drinking glögg and singing when it gets wicked miserable out.
Here are a few recipes and some rousing Swedish singing to get you started:
Also, though candle burning is highly recommended as a way of making things feel cosy, bright and Scandinavian inside even when it sucks outside, don’t drink so much that you forget the basic rules of candle safety. For wearing on your head, these days, even Megan goes for the battery powered candle-crown…