Candlelight dinners are a passion of mine, as are candlelight breakfasts and candlelight snacks.
That is one reason why I feel at home in Scandinavia, where candles flicker from mantles and window sills all year long. Their tear-drop flames dispel the darkness of winter and mellow the long sun of June.
I remember having tea and sweet cakes on a rainy afternoon in Bergen, a day that was gray from sky to earth except for the golden glow of a slim white taper on my table.
I remember admiring a brass-stemmed hurricane lamp in the library of the Plaza Hotel in Copenhagen, and learning, from a bellman, that it was designed by Bjorn Wiinblad.
It took me just minutes to walk to his gallery, behind the Hotel d'Angleterre, and to choose a brass candlestick for my home.
My collection includes crystal snowballs from glass factories near Goteborg, and fluted cups from Helsinki. I have candles held by pewter, by teak, by twists of rope and by hand-painted pottery.
Not long ago, however, I met my match. I had dinner within the ancient walls of St. Gertruds Kloster in Copenhagen, an enchanting shrine to fine food.
More than 1,200 candles burn inside its labyrinthine vaults and high-ceilinged halls. Winsome shadows are cast from wall sconces and hanging lamps, from corner niches and banisters. I loved every flattering moment.
Among the joyous Swedish celebrations of candledom is that of St. Lucia, the Queen of Light, who arrives in Sweden on Dec. 13--the shortest and darkest day of the year.
Young girls, usually blond and clear of voice, are selected to wear the white robe and seven-candle crown of Lucia. This marks the turning point toward longer daylight hours, there in the far north.
Lucias pop up everywhere, chosen by each family, school and village, by each hotel, restaurant and Volvo division. The tradition is even observed on SAS flights.
Passengers leaving the United States for Scandinavia on the night of Dec. 12 can count on a glorious wake-up visit from a flight attendant wearing a crown of white candles--unlighted, of course.
In Swedish homes on that dark morning, the Lucia-for-a-day serves ginger cookies and coffee to her parents. In larger ceremonies, down snowy country lanes or carpeted city corridors, she is followed by a court of costumed girls and boys.
This heralds the Christmas season, which glitters for more than three weeks. Scandinavian cities smell as fresh as the surrounding forests, with heavy boughs of spruce and fir decorating shops and office buildings.
December is also when brilliant men and women come 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 the novelist Sinclair Lewis reportedly heard soft singing.
He opened his bleary eyes to the vision of an angel--a young virgin in white, smiling at him from beneath a halo of candlelight.
Later he admitted that, for a few ecstatic moments, he honestly thought he was dead.