#SwedishChristmas: Why lussekatter are one hell of a bun

#SwedishChristmas: Why lussekatter are one hell of a bun
Closely associated with Saint Lucia, the origin story of lussekatter also has a darker side. Photo: Emelie Asplund/
Every day until Christmas Eve, The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in our own Advent calendar.

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'Tis the season in Sweden for lussebullar, the Swedish saffron buns associated with Luciadagen (Lucia day) on December 13th, especially those with the S-like twist known as lussekatter (literally, Lucia cats). What better way to celebrate the day of Saint Lucia, which we'll tell you more about tomorrow, than to enjoy a golden sweet bun associated with Satan?

Wait… what?

Lussekatter, associated with Lucia, Christmas… and the devil? Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

That's right, the origin story of lussekatter is a devilish departure from the more ordinary history of saffron bread, which dates to the ancient Romans. In Sweden, saffron buns were established as a high-status baked good by the 1600s, and often featured at the funeral banquets of prominent individuals, according to Lena Kättström Höök, curator at Stockholm's Nordiska Museet, in her book, God Jul! Från midvinterblot till Kalle Anka.

It wasn't until the 1800s, when ingredients became more available and baking methods and tools improved, that saffron buns became accessible to a larger public. Only then did saffron buns, like pepparkakor, become closely associated with Christmas in general and Lucia day in particular.

Around the same time, the German tradition of buns shaped like sleeping cats was imported into Sweden. Following a long association between cats and the devil, the buns were said to be baked by Satan and given to naughty children at Christmas. However, because they were made with saffron, which was traditionally considered to have magic powers that, among other things, helped to ward off the devil, they also had a much more positive connotation. They became known in Sweden as djävulskatter (Devil's buns) before eventually taking on the more innocent name of lussekatter. Or so it would seem…

Sweden's Princess Madeleine, Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Carl Philip making lussekatter in 1984. Photo: Anders Holmström/TT

In fact, even the word lusse, an old Swedish form of ljus (light), is connected etymologically with both Lucia and the devil. The names Lucia and Lucifer – a fallen angel whose name later became synonymous with Satan – are each derived from the Latin word lux, which means light. And though in the Nordic tradition Lucia became the bearer of light on what was once the longest night of the year, the name Lucifer literally translates from Latin to “bringer of light”. These contrasting themes – good and evil, darkness and light – play a significant role in the blending of the pagan and Christian beliefs that shaped Swedish Lucia celebrations.

Despite its connections to the underworld, most Swedes still find lussekatt a heavenly bun, perfect for enjoying with some glögg on Lucia day or any day of Swedish Christmas.

Each day until Christmas Eve, we're looking at the story behind one Swedish festive tradition. Find the rest of our #SwedishChristmas series HERE.

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