Early on the morning of Dec. 13, the celebration of Saint Lucia's Day starts, marking the beginning of the coming Christmas season in many Swedish homes. Up before dawn, the youngest daughter in the family is called Lucia for a day and is dressed in white with a crimson sash, a crown of lingonberry leaves, and lighted candles on her head.
She awakens her family with a tray of saffron buns and ginger cookies, or pepparkakor. Often she sings the familiar Santa Lucia melody.
Throughout the day, hundreds of Lucias reign in schools, shops, and businesses. In Stockholm, a blond Lucia is crowned queen by a recent Nobel prizewinner.
Margaretta Larsen, a Stockholm native, told me of high school days when she and chums spent the ''Lucia night'' together.
Even hotel guests in this Nordic capital are awakened with a Lucia touch. Saffron buns and smorgasbord are often served.
On snowy streets, there are serenades by Lucia singers bundled in down jackets and boots, wreathed in mufflers and leafy Lucia crowns.
Saint Lucia's Day is a mingling of darkness and light. Formerly it was associated with the longest and darkest night of the year, the winter solstice. December is the darkest time of the year in Scandinavia, and St. Lucia's day is the antidote to darkness, a break in the long, bleak winter. Nowhere is the season celebrated so warmly or with so much light and food.
Candles beam from hundreds of windows - in homes, shops, apartments, even business buildings - streaming into the early afternoon darkness. Lucia's feast symbolizes the return of light and hope.
Very much a part of the celebration are the traditional Lucia buns, fragrant with saffron, adorned with raisins, and shaped in a variety of ways.
''Saffron is the spice of the Christmas season,'' says Margaretta Larsen. ''We don't use it any other time. Swedes eat saffron bread and Lucia buns all through the Christmas season.''
There are cookies nicknamed lussekatter, meaning ''Lucia Cats'' and pepparkakor, ginger hearts, plain or elaborately decorated with white icing. They hang from crimson ribbons in bakery and shop windows.
Like Swedish families, you can make the Lucia buns ahead and freeze them, then reheat as you wish. They are delicious plain or with sweet butter. Below are several traditional recipes for the Lucia-Christmas celebration.
Saffron, the world's most expensive spice, is found in specialty shops here where it sells for more than $6 for less than an ounce. It is often at the checkout counter.
Saffron threads are made from dried stigmas of the yellow autumn crocus and are harvested by hand. It takes 225,000 stigmas to make a pound of saffron. Fortunately, a little goes a long way.
TSwedish Lucia Buns 1 teaspoon saffron threads 1/4 cup boiling water 1 3/4 cups milk 1/3 cup butter 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon salt 2 packages active dry yeast 1/2 cup lukewarm water 2 teaspoons sugar 1 egg 7 to 7 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds 2/3 cup golden raisins 1/2 cup candied orange and lemon peel, diced 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water
Soak saffron in boiling water and set aside. In saucepan, combine milk and butter over medium heat until very warm.
Stir in 1 cup sugar and salt. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over water and 2 teaspoons sugar to dissolve.
In mixer bowl, beat egg. Add milk-butter and yeast mixtures, saffron threads, and saffron water.
Gradually add 3 1/2 cups sifted flour. Beat 5 minutes with electric mixer. Gradually add another 3 cups of flour. Use only as much of the last 1/2 cup of flour as needed to keep dough from being sticky.
Turn dough onto lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Gently work in almonds, fruit peel, and raisins, distributing evenly. Place in greased bowl, turning to grease top of dough.
Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk. Punch dough down.
Lucia buns: Divide 2/3 of dough into 18 equal pieces 2 1/2 ounces in weight, or about the size of a lemon.
Set aside and cover remaining 1/3 of dough to make Lucia wreath, if desired.
Roll each piece of dough into 10-inch-long strip. Form into S-shapes, coiling ends inward. Place on greased baking sheets 2 inches apart. Cover with kitchen towel and let rise in warm place until doubled in size.
Brush with 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water. Press a dark raisin deep into the center of each coil. Bake at 350 degrees F. about 15 minutes. Cool buns, lightly wrapped in terry-cloth towel, on wire rack. Makes 18 buns.
Lucia wreath: Cut remaining 1/3 of dough into 6 equal pieces and roll into ropes. Form wreath by laying 2 ropes in X shape on greased baking sheet. Lay 2 more ropes in an X over first X.
Repeat with last 2 ropes. Coil ends under clockwise. Cover with clean kitchen towel and let rise in warm place until almost doubled in size.
Brush with 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water. Bake at 350 degees F. 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on rack.
This recipe is from ''Festive Breads of Christmas,'' by Norma Voth, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa.
Swedish Jast Krans 1 package active dry yeast 2 tablespoons sugar 1 cup lukewarm milk 3 eggs 4 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup butter or margarine Raisin Nut Filling, recipe below 1 cup powdered sugar, optional 1 1/2 tablespoons milk, optional 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, optional
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1/2 cup of the lukewarm milk. Set aside. Separate the eggs and reserve the whites for Raisin Nut Filling. Beat the yolks until light and lemon colored. Add remaining 1/2 cup milk and beat well.
Cut butter into sifted flour and salt and mix as for pie crust. Add yeast, egg, and milk mixtures to flour. Mix thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Punch dough down the next morning and divide in half. On lightly floured board, roll 1/2-by-12-by-18-inch rectangle. Spread with filling. Roll as for jelly roll. Close ends and turn seam side down on greased baking sheet. Shape roll into half moon. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
Cover and set in warm place until doubled in size. Bake at 350 degrees F. about 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool. Frost with mixture of powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla.
Raisin Nut Filling 3 egg whites reserved from dough recipe 1/2 sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 1/2 cups raisins 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Beat the egg whites until frothy. Gradually add the sugar and cinnamon. Beat until stiff. Spread half of the egg white on each of the two rectangles. Sprinkle each rectangle with 3/4 cup raisins and 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans.
(This recipe comes from the kitchen of the late Ruth Peterson, Lindsborg, Kan.)