I have a Winter Solstice tradition to share with you. I hope you enjoy it and are happy – like me – to see longer days coming.
When I was much younger, my mother and I attended services at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, one of the oldest places of worship in the country, where I was in the choir. My family had a long history with the church, with many of my ancestors christened, married, and eventually buried there. Like many places in the Northeastern part of the country, history oozed from every brick and cobblestone in Philadelphia. I suspect the major reason I went to church was that I loved the music so much.
Swedish colonists established Gloria Dei in 1677, five years before the founding of Philadelphia. The church has maintained many Swedish traditions. One of them is the Lucia Fest, a custom that is a mixture of Christianity and paganism. It celebrates both the birth of the Christ child and the winter solstice.
The Lucia fest at Gloria Dei was, and still is, a beautiful enactment. From the entirely candle-lit church, it begins with a procession of little boys and girls dressed in red as tomptegubbars (Santa’s elves), followed by the stjärngossar (star boys), and Lucia’s court of young girls dressed in long white nightgowns with green wreaths on their heads, carrying lighted candles. Finally, they are followed by the girl chosen to be Lucia. All of the participants sing traditional Swedish songs a capella as they proceed down the aisle of the church. Just thinking and writing about it gives me goosebumps. At the old building that was Gloria Dei, besides the performers and the audience, there were a lot of unobtrusive firefighters on the scene, just in case.
In homes throughout Sweden—and parts of the US where there are many Swedish immigrants—the custom is for the oldest girl in the household to arise early and walk through her house on the day of the solstice. She wakes her family, serving sweetbreads and coffee, singing along the way. Lucia represents the lengthening of the days and the return of the sun. And, later, the arrival of the Christ child, as the light of the world.
In my sixteenth year, I was chosen to be a Lucia. I sang solo in Swedish while wearing a crown of seven lighted candles, signifying the seven known planets at the time this custom began. Even after all these years, I still remember the words. In spite of being scary, it was also exhilarating.