Candlelight dinners are a passion of mine, as are candlelight lunches and breakfasts. This is one of the reasons that I feel at home in Scandinavia, where candles flicker from mantles and window sills all year long, whether to dispel the darkness of winter or to mellow the late sun of June.
I remember having tea and sweet cakes on a rainy afternoon in Bergen, on a day that was gray from sky to earth except for the golden glow of a tall, white taper near the teapot on my table.
I remember admiring a brass-stemmed hurricane lamp in the library of the Plaza Hotel in Copenhagen and learning that it was designed by artist Bjorn Wiinblad. I remember that it took me only minutes to find his shop behind the Hotel d'Angleterre, and choose a similar candlestick for my home.
I cherish snowballs of crystal from Goteborg and fluted cups from Helsinki. I have candles held by pewter, by teak and by hand-painted pottery. Each day it is my ritual to light some of them.
Shrine to Fine Food
Recently, though, I met my match. I had dinner within the ancient stone walls of St. Gertruds Kloster, an enchanting Copenhagen shrine to fine food, whose history goes back 700 years. More than 1,200 candles of all sizes burn inside its labyrinthine vaults and high-ceilinged halls. They cast merry shadows from wall sconces and hanging lamps, from corner niches and banisters. I loved every flattering moment.
Among the most joyous traditions is that of Santa Lucia, the Queen of Light, who arrives in Sweden on Dec. 13, the longest and darkest day of the year. Young girls--usually blond and clear of voice--are chosen to wear the white robe, red sash and seven-candle crown of Lucia.
Lucias pop up everywhere, selected by each family, school and village, by each hotel and restaurant and Volvo division. In Swedish homes, on that dark morning, Lucia serves ginger cookies and coffee to her parents.
In larger ceremonies, down snowy paths or carpeted corridors, she is followed by a court of girls and boys, all carrying candles. This heralds the Christmas season that glitters for more than three weeks.
Nobel Winners Visit
December is also when brilliant men and women go to Stockholm from around the world to receive the Nobel Prize. Over the years most have stayed at the opulent Grand Hotel, which faces Sweden's Royal Palace across a finger of the Baltic.
On Dec. 13 a fresh-faced Lucia appears at the door of each Nobel laureate, including the winner for literature who traditionally is cosseted in Suite 239.
It was there in 1930, after a long night's celebration, that Sinclair Lewis heard soft singing and opened his bleary eyes to the vision of an angel, a young virgin in white, smiling beneath a halo of candlelight.
He later wrote that, for a few ecstatic moments, he thought he was dead.