When Catharina Malmberg-Snodgrass was a child she lived in a Victorian apartment house in Stockholm where "there were a lot of widows and old people. . . On the morning of December 13 we would get up very early and walk around the apartment house bringing them Lucia buns and coffee and singing for them. Then we would go to my grandparents and do it for them. We would always see everyone in the streets, with coats over long white robes, hurrying to friends and relatives. Then we would go to the home of our main teacher. School wouldn't start until nine that day, and it wasn't a regular school day. There would always be a Lucia party."

Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, is the patron saint of Naples -- a young woman who plucked out her eyes rather than give up either Christianity or virginity. It's unclear exactly how the Catholic saint was adopted by the Protestant north, but since the eighteenth century St. Lucy's feast day, December 13, has marked the opening of the Christmas festivities in Sweden. The original connection may have something to do with the fact that the feast day falls on one one of the darkest days of the year in Scandinavia.

"Lucia is the Queen of Light," explains Malmberg-Snodgrass. "She brings hope. The girl carrying the coffee and buns wears a white robe with a red sash, which symbolizes the blood of the martyr. When I was growing up, she wore real candles in a wreath on her head."

Today, battery-powered crowns are available but the tradition seems otherwise unchanged. Lucia, who is often though not always chosen for her blonde hair, carries coffee, saffron-laced buns and ginger cookies in homes, schools,churches, officesand factories all over Sweden. She is usually accompanied by attendants who wear long white robes with glittery sashes and headgear , by star boys with pointed hats and magic wands and by a tomte, a red-suited elf. The procession chants "Santa Lucia," a Neopolitan folk song, in Swedish.

This year, Malmberg-Snodgrass is making s star boy outfit for her three-year-old, Eric, and a tomte costume for her 19-month-old,Jay, who will participate in a Lucia celebration sponsored by SVEA, a Swedish women's organization dedicated to keeping old country cultural traditions alive in America. She has also passed the Lucia tradition on to non-Swedish friends.

"I needed the St.Lucy idea to bolster a positive image for my daughter's name," says Cathy Pfeiffer, a neighbor of Malmberg-Snodgrass who felt that the name of Lucy got a bad press from "I Love Lucy" reruns and the Peanuts gang.

Pfeiffer checked some books out of the library, called the Swedish Embassy and found she could order a battery-powered crown from a company in Stockholm for about $20. She found Lucia napkins in a Scandinavian shop and recipes for Lucia buns and ginger cookies in women's magazines. Lucy Pfeiffer's four-year-old friends were pressed into service as attendants, parading through the house carrying candles stuck in apples and singing at least a few words of Santa Lucia, in English. Pfeiffer plans to make her Lucia party an annual event and , now that Lucy and most of her friends are a sophisticated five, she's adding Swedish folk dancing around the Christmas tree.

LAUNCHING YOUR LUCIA PARTY

You don't have to be Swedish or even have a child named Lucy to throw a Lucia party. Here are some sources of information about the tradition, some sources of supplies and some recipes:

SWEDISH CHRISTMAS, published by Tre Tryckare, Gothenburg, 1955, and available at the Martin Luther King Library.

SCANDINAVIA TOO at Springfield Mall sells battery- powered Lucia crowns for about $20. They can also be ordered from Nordiska Kompaniet, S-103 74, Stockholm, which takes Mastercharge.

LUCIA GINGER SNAPS: Whip 11/2 cups heavy cream. Add 21/2 cups brown sugar, 1 tbs. ginger, 1 tbs. grated lemon rind and 2 tbs. baking soda. Stir 10 minutes. Add 9 cups of flour and work until smooth. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Roll out thin on a floured board. Using floured cutters, make pigs, hearts, stars, etc. Brush with water and bake on greased cookie sheets for 15 minutes at 250o F. Cool on cookie sheets.

LUCIA BUNS: Dissolve 2 packages yeast in half a cup of lukewarm milk. Dry 1 tsp. saffron (less if you want to save money) in a warm oven. Pound it smooth with a small amount of sugar or dissolve it in 1 tbs. brandy. Mix 2 cups milk, saffron, 11/2 cups sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 egg, 1 cup melted butter and a small amount of flour. Add yeast and 8 cups of flour. Beat with a wooden spoon until smooth and firm. Sprinkle with flour, cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about two hours. Turn onto floured board and knead until smooth. Make braided loaves in different shapes. Each area of Sweden has a characteristic shape, but S-shapes are probably easiest. Place buns on buttered baking sheets, cover and let rise. Brush with slightly beaten egg. Sprinkle with sugar and chopped almonds and bake in a 425o oven for 5 to 10 minutes.

GLOGG FOR CHILDREN: Put 2 cups apple juice, 2 cups cranberry juice cocktail, 1/2 cup raisins, 1 small piece whole ginger, 5 whole cloves and a two-inch piece of cinnamon in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer 20 minutes. Add 1/2 cup blanched almonds. Serves eight.