Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bringing Dawn to Dawnland: Maine's Swedish Heritage

It begins before dawn on the morning of December 13th. In each household throughout Sweden, the eldest daughter wears a white gown, red sash, and a crown of blazing candles. She emerges from the darkness carrying steaming coffee and pastry to wake her family. In each university, school, and community, too, candlelit parades offer a festival of light, led by the one who brights light to darkness - Sankta Lucia. This tradition, along with many others, crossed the Atlantic with Swedish emigrants and rooted itself here in Maine.

There are many accounts of how Santa Lucia Day developed. This is my summary: the Santa Lucia tradition dates back to ancient times when what is now Sweden was gripped by terrible famine. At the height of winter, when darkness and hunger were at their worst, legend says that a ship sailed across Lake Vanern. At its helm stood a beautiful woman dressed in white with a radiant glow about her head. Her barge brought not only light, but a shipload of food for the people. The pre-Christian festival that developed to honor her, occurred on the day of longest darkness, winter solstice (December 13th in the Julian calendar). After 1000 A.D., this Scandinavian story merged with a Sicilian, Christian story about a woman who was burned at the stake for not renouncing her faith. Santa Lucia Day, like many other traditions, bears pagan and Christian elements.

My own ancestors, on my father's side, were among those Swedish immigrants who settled in Maine during the 1800s. They were Nilssons and Olsons with, it seemed, a new spelling for every document that bore their last names. My ancestors were farmers who drove their loads of potatoes into Skowhegan by horse and wagon, capable of swearing up a storm in Swedish, if the appropriate occasion arose.

Thanks to them, those famous foreign place names in Maine (see left) include New Sweden and Stockholm. Even the most avid geographer has a right to be confused.

Now that I'm married to a Swedish American, we celebrate some Swedish traditions here on Peaks Island, including Santa Lucia Day (my daughter looks out over Whitehead Passage, upper right photo). Resources nearby  offer Mainers some of the essential ingredients.

In addition to a crown of candles and a properly clad young lady, this holiday is defined by food. Lussekatte (Lucia Buns) and pepparkakor (spice cookies) are the beloved goodies to which I awoke this morning. Here's a Lussekatte recipe easily managed in a bread machine;

1 cup milk
1 egg
1/4 cup butter
3 T brown sugar
1 1/2 t shredded citrus peel
3/4 t salt
1/8-1/4 t crushed saffron threads
2 1/4 c bread flour
1 t active bread yeast

After the dough has been prepared by the bread machine, roll small pieces of dough (with heavily floured hands and board) into 6-10" long ropes of dough. Twist each rope into an "S" shape. Brush raw buns with mixture of beaten egg and water. Add a raisin to each spiral twist. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.

Enjoy and God Jul fellow residents of Dawnland.