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Event Sun Dec 14 2008

Santa Lucia's Day @ Tre Kronor

Saturday, December 13 was Santa Lucia's Day. Only I wouldn't have known, if we hadn't gone to Tre Kronor--a popular Swedish cafe on Foster--for breakfast. There was a big Christmas tree with lots of golden ornaments, and everywhere on the walls were wreaths with red and gold ribbons. It was bustling as usual with tons of customers filling the dim room with happy buzz, and we were lucky to get a window-side table for two in a quiet corner. On the table was a long white candle that I didn't remember from our last time there.

Saffron Bun for Santa Lucia DayWhen the server guy came over to take our order, he mentioned that it was Santa Lucia's Day in Sweden, which is why they had special "saffron buns" on the menu. Instead of our usual side of cinnamon roll, we decided to try a saffron bun, and ordered from the daily specials. We sipped coffee, watching young servers whisk around plates of omelets and eggs Benedicts. In a few minutes, the saffron bun (called lussekatt in Swedish) showed up--it was shaped like a flower with four petals, two of which held a raisin each. Sprinkled with a few rock sugar candy and dyed with threads of saffron, the yeasty bun was rich and moist. Although this rather bland bread wouldn't be my favorite bread, knowing that it was a traditional item associated with this specific day made it feel quite special. (It made me remember all the traditional foods of Japanese holidays in my childhood that had undoubtedly been special in the old days but my modern palate didn't particularly enjoy.)

As we waited for our crab cake Benedict and smoked salmon Benedict (the server guy informed us that the kitchen was rather slammed at the moment, with a huge party in the upstairs dining room), suddenly a song erupted from somewhere. I looked up, and saw two young women in white robe gingerly walk toward the Christmas tree, singing a cappella. The buzz of the dining room died down completely, as if we'd quickly sank into a soundless ocean bed. One of the women wore, on her head, four white candles attached to a wreath of green pine needles. A red sash was tied around her waist. We listened as they followed the simple, two-part melody of the old Swedish song.

When they finished the song, one of them started explaining the occasion. "If you didn't realize that you are here on a very special day for Swedish people, it's Santa Lucia Day today. It's a day to celebrate light--if you live in northern Europe where you get only a few minutes of sunlight at this time of year, you'd be very happy that starting today, the winter solstice, the sun starts slowly coming back," she chuckled. "In the morning of Santa Lucia Day, the eldest daughter of the family wears candles on her head and goes around the house, singing traditional songs. Or," she added with a grin, "in our case, it's the younger sister because I'd rather have the wax dripping in her hair than mine."

They sang a few more songs, and left, still singing, to pay a visit to the upstairs banquet. There was an air of faint enchantment in the dining room, even after the white-robed sisters left. There was something primordial about the whole event, despite its obvious Christian vestige of Santa Clara holding on to her faith in the face of persecution. Perhaps the gray, windy day just outside the window by our table added to the sense of connection to the people hundreds of years ago who had celebrated the winter solstice in the same manner, many thousands of miles away from where we were sitting. The restaurant gradually dissolved back into its usual Saturday-monring hubbub, with diners discussing their Christmas shopping and servers yelling orders into the kitchen, but the vague sense of warmth and community somehow persisted. It took quite a while till our eggs Benedicts were ready, but we didn't really mind. Our coffee cups were kept warm and full by our attentive server, the candle light flickered, and the pleasure of running into such a magic moment entirely by chance kept us smiling the whole time.

 

Matthew Pennington / December 14, 2008 1:56 PM

You would have known about the holiday if you went to a college called Gustavus Adolphus. I'm glad to know I can revel in the idiosyncratic celebration of a Swedish holiday in America when I move back to Chicago next year.

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