December 15, 2009

Confessions of a Lucia Wannabe: NaCoBakMo, Day 17.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:37 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Not too many baking days left before Christmas: have you made your donation to the Irving Park Community Food Pantry yet? Looks like I’ll be aiming to ship these babies out via our nation’s fine postal service on December 26 and 27. Piles of cookies are packed away, anxiously waiting to make their way to you. So far, cookies are scheduled to go to Seattle, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, New York, and, of course, Chicago—and, most importantly, we’ve raised over $200 for the IPCFP. Mr. Unfocused and I are matching donations up to $500, so donate and send me your e-receipt along with shipping info so I can send you some cookies in appreciation!

A few days ago, I told you about my church’s annual Santa Lucia Dinner, a heartwarming event built around the Scandinavian celebration of Santa Lucia Day. Each December 13 in Sweden and Norway the oldest daughter of the family is called upon to bake Lucia buns for her family, make the morning coffee, and deliver said delicacies to her family while wearing a crown of candles atop her youthful head. Or so I’ve been told.

In the Lutheran church of my childhood, I recall only one potluck dinner with a Lucia theme. Our congregation had come to the assistance of a young Scandinavian woman who had lost most of her possessions in an apartment fire; to give something back to the church, she offered to introduce us to the festival of Santa Lucia with a traditional Lucia procession. Some of the girls in the congregation were permitted to be her attendants. I may or may not have been included among them (I was quite small, and I don’t remember), but I knew right then and there that my life would not be complete until I had a chance to wear that crown of candles.

Words cannot express how much I wanted to be at the center of this ritual, but, alas, it was not to be. Our family didn’t maintain this tradition, as it was utterly foreign to my father’s German ancestry and my mother’s Swedish/Norwegian/German family hadn’t concerned themselves with it. My mom remembers the clear message that her immigrant ancestors had done a “See ya! Wouldn’t wanna be ya!” jaunty salute in the direction of their homeland, turned towards America, and jettisoned as many traditions as they could reasonably stomach in order to fully embrace their new identity and country. So while she grew up in a family that was all about the coffee and coffee cake—and even maintained a membership in good standing at the Swedish Club where she was free to observe the adults drinking and gambling in Swedish style—they were all just a little too modern to be putting candles on her head for a special morning of potentially life-threatening servitude.

But the passage of time brightens the shine of abandoned traditions, and my mother came to embrace her roots more and more, developing some of her closest friendships with a group of strong Norwegian immigrant women. She traveled to Norway with several of them one memorable December, and had such a wonderful time she returned the next summer with me and my brother in tow. It was fantastic—a place simultaneously fully real and fully magical, a place of welcoming people and staggering beauty.

Of course, I knew nothing of the reality of Scandinavia when I was a child; all I knew was that I wanted one of those crowns. And the robe. And the sash, and the coffee pot, and the tray…the whole deal, my friends. I wanted it all. (Harriet said in her comment about the Lucia Dinner post that she was one of the lucky girls to wear the candle crown—and I must say I will burn with jealousy til the end of my days over that. Nothing personal, Harriet!)

I do not blame my parents in any way. We had wonderful Christmases which I cherish in my memory, where they sparkle and glow in the palette of the 1970s photos in our family albums. Also, I have to speculate that even if they had been aware of the secret desire of my innermost heart those crowns were probably hard to come by in the United States in the 70s.

But not anymore. Now we live in the Global Economy (I really want to say Global “Economy”—is that too cynical?), and you can get a battery-operated Lucia crown (no fire hazards here!) with a simple few clicks of the mouse, which is exactly what I did a few years ago.

I bought it for my daughter, who had been similarly infected with Lucia-wannabe-itis. I’m not certain, but I think it happened when we attended our first Lucia dinner when she was around four years old. I explained what was going on, and the whole candle thing, and, just like me, she KNEW her destiny when she saw it. The dinner was a few days before December 13, like this year, so I said, “Sure, we can celebrate somehow. I know! I won’t be able to get a crown in time, but don’t worry, I’ll get you one of those handheld battery-operated candles and you can lead us all downstairs to breakfast!” She was only four, so we had to be realistic in our expectations of what she could manage; carrying a tray upstairs would have been too much for her.

I only had a few days to make arrangements, and with a four year-old and a toddler, my efforts to shop for supplies met with no success. Desperate, on the night of December 12 I left Mr. Unfocused in charge and headed off to the drugstore after the kids were asleep. After all, those battery-operated Christmas candles are all over the place, right? Wrong. There are no battery-operated taper candles anywhere, much less at a drugstore at 9:30 p.m., and I was really sweating it. She had gone to bed confident in the knowledge that we would have a lovely Lucia morning with her as the guiding light, and I was on the verge of seriously blowing it.

The Universe picked up on my distress, however, and presented me with another option: a 10-inch high LED-lit acrylic angel statue the likes of which I would not under any other circumstances allow into my house. But this was my only chance to salvage a child’s dream, and having shared that dream for so long I took a chance that she would accept the substitution. I needn’t have worried. The angel’s blue glow was the most entrancing sight she had ever beheld, and she carried it proudly down the stairs, leading us to our breakfast. Even after acquiring a crown the following year she insisted we continue to use it, as we have ever since.

Now that she is older she can handle carrying a tray upstairs, so we are inching ever closer to what this tradition is really supposed to look like. For the last several years she has worn the white gown I made for her Egyptian queen Halloween costume from when she was six, although it’s considerably shorter on her now than it used to be. Usually she has a red sash—really just an unhemmed 1/8 yard of red satin—but it lives in the costume box the rest of the year and at some point in 2009 acquired some kind of superhero symbol in permanent marker; we substituted similarly unhemmed green satin this time. The angel takes pride of place on the tray with the coffee and rolls, which, this being America, are giant pull-apart cinnamon rolls of decadence (frequently known as monkey bread, bonus recipe below) rather than quaint Lucia buns. For unlike Scandinavians, unfettered as they are by an American diet of nonstop sugar and fat, we require a little more pizazz and a lot more calories to make waking up early in the morning on a weekend worthwhile.

Unfocused Girl takes her responsibility very seriously, assuming her most serene demeanor when preparing for this special delivery.

I am very fond of our way of incorporating Lucia traditions into our house, but it has crossed my mind that perhaps there are a few flaws in the plan. As conceived, it should pretty much amount to a nice morning of breakfast in bed for the parents. In reality, here at Casa Unfocused it involves me racing around the night before to assemble all the stuff, getting up early the next morning to bake the cinnamon rolls and make the coffee, and carrying up the second of the two trays behind my daughter. This year I couldn’t even climb back into bed for a cinnamon roll, as I had to race off to church early to sing. But that’s not the primary indignity. My true objection is this: I do all that work, and I STILL DON’T GET TO WEAR A CROWN. I have never even tried it on. There is something seriously unfair about this arrangement! I demand justice!

Oh, all right, I’ll shut up if you pass me a cinnamon roll.

Our Lucia morning spread, complete with dreidel-and-pennies from the previous night's Hanukkah celebration. My, how our heads do spin at this time of year.

Bonus recipe:

Overnight Pull-Apart Cinnamon Rolls (aka Monkey Bread)

18 unbaked frozen dinner rolls (like Rhodes; this year the store didn’t have them so I used 1 1/2 loaves of Rhodes frozen bread, thawed slightly and sliced into about 20 roll-sized pieces)
1 c brown sugar
1/4 c instant vanilla pudding mix
2 t ground cinnamon
1/3 c butter, melted

Lightly spray a 10-inch bundt pan with cooking spray. Place frozen rolls in the pan and sprinkle with brown sugar, pudding mix, and cinnamon. Pour melted butter over the top. Cover with a damp, clean cloth and leave overnight at room temperature to rise. In the morning, preheat oven to 350º. Bake rolls for 25 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to rest for no more than one minute, then turn out onto a serving pan. Serve warm.

Today’s cookie is Kanelkakor, quite possibly the cookie I have been making by myself for the longest time. It might just be my favorite cookie. I found the recipe when I was maybe 12 years old as I was studying my mom’s collection of Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery books. They were great books back then, and I suspect they still have a lot of value packed in them. This cookie was included in the section on Swedish cooking; I was probably reviewing it while fantasizing about the day I would lead a Lucia procession. I no longer use the walnuts due to fear of peanut contamination, but they turn out pretty well without them. I admit they are just a little bit better with them, though.

Kanelkakor (Swedish Cinnamon Cookies)
from Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery

2/3 c butter
1 c sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla extract
1 1/3 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 c walnuts, finely chopped (I omit these)
2 T each ground cinnamon and sugar, mixed

Preheat oven to 350º. Prepare cookie sheets using baking parchment or by greasing and flouring.

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and 1 t cinnamon. Gradually add to egg mixture and blend thoroughly. Chill for 30 minutes. Combine walnuts and mixed cinnamon and sugar. Roll chilled dough into balls the size of walnuts. Roll each ball in walnut-cinnamon-sugar. Place cookies on prepared cookie sheets about 3 inches apart. Bake for approximately 12 minutes. Yield: roughly 36 cookies.

LATER TODAY: Meeting an old nemesis.



  1. Jeanne said,

    My daughter and I were also enchanted with the Lucia crown the first time we saw one. She got to wear one at church once–as you say, it’s easier these days. But I like the tradition you wrote about where all the kids–male and female–get to march behind Lucia.

    The Sweet Potato Queen’s Book of Love will tell you that if you want a crown (or majorette boots) you gotta go out there and get one for yourself!

  2. lillavild said,

    For Lucia day it’s a must to eat loads of Saffron buns and ginger biscuits, to be honest, the saffron buns is the most important thing on Lucia day in Sweden. But we don’t have the tradition about the eldest daughter getting up in the morning to bake and stuff. We usually bake the buns the night before (or buy) and Lucia is mostly celebrated at schools (with a picked girl is Lucia and long hair is a must), working places, shopping malls and retirement homes (where choirs, school classes or such visits all dressed up and singing). And is of course shown on TV early in the morning and everyone always get upset because it’s not as traditional as we like it.

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