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Lucia as Rite of Passage

by Rita Leydon ©1996
 

We all know something, more or less, about our Swedish Lucia tradition and its history, and can explain it to the uninitiated as the need arises. But what is most important in our personal celebration of Lucia is the glow of magic and hope and possibilities that fills our hearts as we replay the tradition year after year. It doesn’t matter what our particular role in the observance happens to be—appreciative audience member, proud parent, bit player, envious underling, or the Queen of Light herself. We Swedes need the confirmations that this annual re-enactment of Lucia provides. It is a fragment of our collective security blanket.

Lucia is a decidedly feminine event. Her offerings are of the nurturing and reflective kind-beauty, illumination, nourishment and hope. Radiance is her power. What little girl hasn’t yearned to be crowned Lucia and be the center of attention for a brilliant moment? To be Lucia is to be Princess, Queen and Bride; crowned in light and bathed in glory, reigning over your entourage of starboys, lightbearers and maybe even a gaggle of red dressed elves. The venue can range from the family home to the school, from church to a town parade, a retirement home to a hospital, from government offices to museums, or factory to shopping mall, for the appearance of Lucia on December 13th is appropriate everywhere and anywhere we Swedes happen to be and are moved to share and play out our traditions. We do it mostly for ourselves because it feels so good to go through the exercise.

Whether we bake the saffron rolls that Lucia serves, wash and iron the garment she wears, or teach the songs to the little English speaking gnomes who will perform Midnatt Råder punctuated by loud “tip tops,” the care and need to be involved is the same. We might be the melancholy starboy under a white pointy cap trying to hide behind a gold painted star, singing the songs softly hoping an undependable voice doesn’t embarrass at the wrong moment. There is no reward in being a starboy, no glory at the end, no chance at singular shining—once the voice changes, you are history. There is just the opportunity to please your Mom and look ridiculous in a pointy “dunce” cap. Young boys are not terribly fond of the whole Lucia thing. No, Lucia is for the glory of the feminine members of the species.

A starry eyed eleven year old princess will happily endure hot wax drizzling around her serene fist—hold on a burning candle, because in her mind she is aspiring to the next level. Every girl trusts that some day it will be her turn to be the Luminary Star—the Lucia. You have to pay your dues and there is a price for this glory. The price of Lucia-hood is the song. Lucia has to sing solo—a whole verse, sometimes two, of Sankta Lucia. It is not easy. Hitting the notes as close to right on as possible is a challenge for the average untrained voice. The words are a no-brainer if you happen to be born in Sweden, but if it was your mother or grandmother who was the native and you, the Lucia of the Moment, are just a normal American teenager, then the words and their pronunciation become a big thing. As part of the entourage you can get by with fudging the words and hoping the angel next to you carries the ball. To be the soloist, however, requires some polish, both musically and enunciatingly. This is stress inducing and panic bearing. Lucias can become quite anxious and nervous in the days leading up to their delivery. Those of us who enjoy a Lucia presentation as part of the audience, must bear in mind these behind-the-scenes tensions and exercise mercy and understanding of the toll Lucia-hood is certainly extracting from the particular young lady you happen to be watching. Bearing the crown is a heavy burden.

An added attraction to the drama and glamour of being the one under the crown is what happens to your hair as all that lovely hot molten wax bleeds and seeps its way into your scalp, for it has to be live candles—electric ones are for sissies. This is part of the price. There is no romance in trying to remove molten wax from one’s hair. The stuff embeds and surrounds every strand of hair in clump after clump and can take the better part of the next day to remove with the aid of a willing helper. No girl minds these slight inconveniences and frights. All of us aspire to bear the crown. Once having done so, we are forever after part of that special Sisterhood of Lucias that in this day and age encircles the globe.

My own Rite of Passage as Lucia came to pass in 1965 when I was a couple of weeks shy of sixteen. The place was Old Swedes Church in Philadelphia. I had paid my dues for five years. This week, I absorbed and inhaled the 1996 version with pleasure. I was warmed by the strong sense of family and continuity that imbued that event at that place. Many past Lucias were in attendance and we greeted one another with a knowing glint in the eye and a solid sense of togetherness.

I recognized many faces and some of the faces extended arms and embraces to me as their memory data clicked in my facial code. It is a curious exercise. My sister’s children—Leif and Linnea—were there singing sweetly and brightly, and of course they were the reason I was there with my husband Chris. I found myself looking carefully at all the bright young faces searching for genetic resemblances to the “children” and youths I had known during the dozen or so years that I was involved with this particular Lucia organization. One lovely young girl turned around in my path after the service, and although I certainly didn’t know her, her face caused my brain to bring up the word “Tommy.” “Your father’s name, is it Tommy?” It was. The family name was Kuensel. His sister had been Lucia a couple of years after me. I have a profound respect for the mystery of continuity and genetic balance and imprinting.

Some children are secure in their singing, others not. The Swedish words are obviously not part of their home life, their little mouths move in such a way that you can tell their pronunciation is way off—it doesn’t matter of course—but if you are Swedish and know the language you can’t help but notice. I particularly enjoyed a tiny, tender tärna (attendnt) who was obviously loving her duty to sing loud and clear. She was enunciating every syllable with vigor and energy, her lips were working exceedingly hard and spewing forth all the songs she had been taught. But she wasn’t pronouncing anything correctly, or even close to correctly. I could see this clearly from her oral movements. She was a joy to observe and I loved her.

The finale was Stilla Natt, three full verses in Swedish. I had no trouble with the first verse, but faded with the second and third—as did everyone else I might add. Not so, my little candle bearing Enunciator in the front row. She belted forth every syllable till the end. By that time, I didn’t know the words and so I couldn’t notice that she didn’t really either. Her mouth continued its vigorous workout in time to the music, and I realized that this is how it is for all the non-Swedish speakers in the audience. They haven’t a clue about the “off” pronunciation, so they are not affected by it, they can simply relax and enjoy the beauty of the moment and bask in the glory of the youthful voices. When Silent Night became English the whole church reverberated with the voices of all the folks who knew that language.

The green and red season has begun. My own birthday is on Jul Afton (1949)—Christmas Eve—as is my firstborn son, Krispin’s (1976), this makes Christmas a little extra special at our house. The Leydon household extends greetings of God Jul och Gott Nytt År to one and all.

Published in Nordstjernan, December 26, 1996

 

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