by David Perry
On the thirteenth of December, the Swedish people celebrate the festival of St. Lucia. How this Sicilian saint, generally uncelebrated in her own land, became such a major figure in early modern Swedish culture is a surprisingly simple tale. Lucia Day developed in Sweden as the Reformation moved northwards, and the worship of Saints became less tolerated. Of all the Saints, however, the traditions surrounding St. Nicholas’s day proved impossible to do without. The Swedes wished to continue the celebratory food and gift-giving traditions surrounding the darkest nights of winter, part of ancient rites requesting the sun to return to the Northern land. Over time, Swedes transferred the gift-giving traditions from the 6th of December (St. Nicholas’ day) to Christmas, but the beseeching of the light’s return began the day before the Christmas fast — December 13th, Lucia’s day. They connected Lucia’s name with lux, and the holiday was born.
In the various texts that discuss the Lucia holiday, such as Jan-Öjvind Swahn’s book, Maypoles, Crayfish and Lucia, the authors mention, but seem unsurprised by, one peculiar detail of the Lucia Day festivities. The cakes the women make in the early morning of the day (and later serve to the father in bed) are flavored with saffron. Saffron cannot grow in Sweden, but the writers on Swedish festivals suggest that this spice has long been present in Lucia Day buns. While the holiday did not develop until the early 18th century, the traditional holiday food in Sweden has long antecedents into the late Middle Ages, and it seems reasonable that the saffron flavored buns were part of these traditions. How did saffron arrive in Sweden? Could the Swedes produce it themselves? Did they have it imported via Russia from India? How expensive was it? Could only the richest Swedes use this spice? The history of the saffron trade differs from many other spices because it could be grown all over Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and further to the East. At the same time, despite the relative ease of cultivating, the difficulties surrounding the harvesting ensures that the European demand for saffron could not be filled. The spice remained expensive, but available. It seems entirely reasonable that once a year many Swedes might have had a pinch of saffron to add a golden hue to their Lucia Day buns. 1
Saffron, named from the Arabic za’fran, comes from the stamens of the Crocus Sativus. This flower grows wild in many places, from Italy to Kurdistan, having been spread by eastern winds across Asia Minor into the Mediterranean. The Greeks claimed that the first cultivated saffron (cultivating the crocus meant breeding it for elongated stamens, producing more of the spice and making it slightly easier to harvest), came from Asia Minor, and rapidly spread across the ancient world. The rewards for growing saffron were great, as were the difficulties. It takes, even today, one hundred thousand flowers to produce one kilo of dried spice, all of which has to be hand picked! Despite these costs, many cultures adopted saffron as an important dietary and medical substance, even if most people could use it only rarely. Ancient Greeks demonstrated the infinite wealth of the gods by describing Zeus having a bed of saffron. Knossos on Crete has frescoes of a man gathering saffron. The Egyptians cultivated vast fields of it to mix with honey, and Romans sought saffron as a curative and aphrodisiac. Wealthy Romans sprinkled their marriage beds with saffron. In the Middle Ages, saffron traveled across North Africa, along with Islam, into Spain. Medieval Spain quickly became the center of saffron production. Not only was saffron used as a medieval flavoring, but scholars as notable as Roger Bacon claimed that saffron would defray the effects of aging and add to the joy in one’s life. Later, as the Middle Ages continued, both France and England began to produce saffron, where their climates were satisfactory. Provence and Essex, at various times, rivaled the Spanish production. 2
People grew saffron all over Western Europe, but the astronomically high labor costs of harvesting it and the low yield per plant kept the supply well below the demand, and yet the supply was sufficient that many people could obtain small quantities of the spice for special occasions. These occasions included the Christmas celebrations of Provence, and St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden. Saffron’s existence as a defining ingredient in a fairly old and widely practiced Swedish holiday is not the product of a long and complicated trade route via the Mongols or the Vikings and Poland or Russia. Nor was saffron a tremendously rare luxury that merchants laboriously brought from India to the Middle East, and from there by Italian merchants. Rather, the Swedish are likely to have used French or Italian saffron as they could obtain it, and, given the amount grown, some saffron would have been available each year. The long-distance saffron trade developed because it was too hard to harvest for any one region to satisfy the demand, and so there was vast profit available for a merchant who carried the spice quite literally worth its weight in gold.
1. This is a distillation of material taken from all of the books on Sweden listed in the Bibliography.
2. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food (Cambridge MA, USA: Blackwell, 1992). Pp. 518-519.
Downman, Lorna. Round the Swedish Year: Daily Life and Festivals through Four Seasons. 7th ed. Stockholm: Fabel, 1972.
Liman, Ingemar. Traditional Festivities in Sweden. Stockholm: Swedish Institute, 1983.
Rehnberg, Mats Erik Adolf. Swedish Holidays and Annual Festivals. Stockholm: Swedish Institute, 1970.
Swahn, Jan-Öjvind. Maypoles, Crayfish and Lucia: Swedish Holidays and Traditions. Stockholm: The Swedish Institute, 1994.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. Trans. Antea Bell. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell Reference, 1992.