In Minnesota, long summer nights are sacred. We know we’ll miss them when winter rolls around with endless stretches of darkness. With a similar climate, it’s no surprise Sweden has an annual tradition to alleviate the toll that a harsh winter can take.
December 13 marks St. Lucia’s Day, a celebration in Swedish folklore of St. Lucia arriving to bring food, light and hope to the world in a time of famine and darkness. The holiday became popular in the late 1900s and today is celebrated throughout Swedish communities from schools to nursing homes.
Closer to home, the American Swedish Institute (ASI) has brought the light of Lucia to the Twin Cities. Each December, they hold two Lucia-themed concerts: Lucia in the Mansion and the Lucia Celebration. The Lucia in the Mansion concert is open to members of the Institute and takes place on the night of December 13 in the ASI’s home base, the historic Turnblad mansion.
“The experience is really rich,” says ASI program manager Britta Wahlstrom. “It’s a candlelit concert that uses the mansion as a beautiful backdrop.”
The Lucia Celebration concerts are held on December 14 at Larson Hall in the Nelson Cultural Center, the newer section of the Institute located next to the mansion. Open to the public, the celebration concerts feature the same music and roles, but run slightly longer than the mansion version.
The ASI’s choirs, made up of 75 singers, pay homage to Lucia through traditional Swedish and English songs. With participants ranging in age from kindergarten to seniors in high school, the pieces must accommodate a range of skills and patience.
However, a few selected choristers, typically age 16 and above, get to play the roles of Lucia, Lucia’s attendants and Star boys and have the opportunity to recite poetry and lead the rest of the choir in procession.
So, how does one get to be Lucia? At the ASI, individuals interested in the roles nominate themselves with an essay that demonstrates their interest in Sweden, Swedish-American culture and an understanding of the spirit of Lucia.
Preparations for the celebration begin months in advance as the ASI begins the call for participants in September, first to past participants and then to new families interested in the event. Rehearsals begin on the first Sunday in November. Each week, the children gather to learn the songs and work on their Swedish pronunciation, while the ASI prepares the costumes, from Lucia’s white robes to various elfin wardrobes.
Once December arrives, it’s time for the magic to begin. Though she typically listens to the concerts from a connecting room, Wahlstrom savors the feeling of community the celebration brings.
“I love seeing all these families come together,” she says. “We work to create a gathering place here at the ASI, and it’s such a fun tradition that people care about continuing. That’s the special thing for me, seeing these families and knowing they are choosing ASI as a place for them.”
Taking part in the Lucia concerts at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) is a yearly tradition for some local families. Whether their interest in the holiday stems from a Swede in the immediate family or an ancestral connection, there’s lots to love about this holiday celebration.
Hannah Andruss, a senior in high school, originally joined the Lucia choir as a small child. “My mom is from Sweden, so the ASI was a resource for her to be able to teach her kids about Swedish traditions,” she says. After taking a break from the choir for a few years, Hannah returned last year and played the role of one of Lucia’s attendants. When it comes to her favorite aspect of the experience, Hannah cites both the communal feeling and her connection to her Swedish roots.
“I always look forward to carrying on the tradition of Lucia and sharing my Swedish heritage with the community around you,” she says. “I have many memories of standing in line before we perform. The little kids look up at you with bright, excited eyes. It’s an amazing experience to be a leader and share this with the community.”
About: The role of Lucia leads the choir procession and often recites a poem in Swedish
Costume: A white robe with a red sash and a crown made of candles
About: Lucia’s attendants hold candles and follow Lucia in the procession
Costume: White robes with garland crowns
About: The Star boys follow Lucia and her attendants
Costume: White robes, stars on sticks and pointy, paper cone hats
About: Christmas elves clad in red, frequently played by the younger participants
About: Children dressed in brown representing pepparkakor, the traditional Swedish ginger cookie made to celebrate Lucia