What St. Lucia taught me: You can't force tradition, even at Christmas
My first Swedish holiday concert left me feeling like a lutefisk out of water.
I went to my first St. Lucia celebration in early December, and I felt a little downhearted after it was over.
This is the classic Swedish Christmastime holiday, where a woman wearing candles and a white robe leads a choral procession of other white-clad women, usually in a church. The songs and traditions associated with St. Lucia — including drinking mulled wine and eating a saffron bun called Lussekatt — didn’t really begin in earnest until the late 1800s and early 1900s, but now the holiday is one of the most typical you’ll find in Sweden, right up there with midsummer and the crayfish parties held every August.
I only know this, of course, because of IKEA, which hosts a handful of special Swedish meals every year, including the winter feast known as Julebord.
We did not grow up in what you’d call a Swedish-American home. Up until a few years ago, everything I knew about Swedish culture came from IKEA. I was born 90 years after the arrival of our most recent Swedish immigrant ancestor, and I completely understand why assimilation would have been a high priority for Karolina and her family in the first decades they lived here.
But as I’ve started to get interested in my own immigration story and heritage, I’ve been doing things like trying to learn Swedish and traveling to Chicago to explore the Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville. In 2016, my sister and I traveled to Sweden, where we explored some of the places we knew our ancestors had lived, eating as many smorgasbord sandwiches as we could before switching over to pasta, pizza and Indian food.
My sister and I are going back to Sweden next year, this time with my mom and my niece, so they can have a taste of the homeland. This time, we’ll get a chance to meet up with some of our long-lost cousins, with whom we reconnected in the years that followed our trip in 2016.
Although we have common ancestors, I’m not sure how much shared culture we’ll have. I have no idea if the ancestors who left Sweden for America attended St. Lucia celebrations before (or after) they left their homeland, but I know that their descendants do because I keep tabs on them through Instagram. (They also have some kind of running joke around Christmas with Alf, as in Alf, the TV character, that I still don’t totally understand but can’t wait to ask them when we meet for the first time.)
In my quest to expose myself to more Swedish culture in America, I went to the annual Swedish Christmas Bazaar and Lucia Concert that is hosted by an organization called SWEA, an international organization of Swedish women that has an Austin chapter. This event has been happening at Gethsemane Lutheran Church for more than a decade, but I hadn’t been interested enough to attend until this year.
I was surprised to hear the women at the ticket table speaking Swedish with some of the attendees in front of me. I’ve never heard Swedish spoken in Austin, and despite more than a year learning on Duolingo, I was totally helpless to communicate with them, so we spoke in English. I bought my ticket and walked into the hall where people had gathered. There were some vendors selling gnomes, the true stars of Scandinavian Christmas, as well as Swedish dish clothes, books in Swedish, and some really cute earrings that weren’t necessarily Swedish but were made with a lovely woman about my age who grew up on the Texas-Mexico border with a Swedish dad and a Mexican mom.
I came upon the kids’ craft table, where there was a box for Tomte Brev — “Letter! I know that word.” I put two-and-two together and realized that, in Sweden, kids write letters to gnomes rather than to Santa. All around the table, kids were wrapping oranges in ribbon and poking cloves into the rind.
Although I’m the kind of person who joins the Swedish-American Historical Society and who can, generally speaking, make friends anywhere, I was there by myself and feeling very much alone at this moment. Like a child on the first day of school. So, I decided to crouch down beside these kids and make my own orange. The little girl next to me shared her cloves with me, and I helped her tie her ribbon. She switched between speaking English with me and Swedish to her mom, who was standing nearby.
I bought a few things from the market, including cardamom buns from the Fika Table, a wonderful Scandinavian bakery that I wrote about when I was about the paper. We ate a lot of kanelbullar when we were in Sweden, so I feel that spark of connection when I get to have one of these pastries. At least one thing at the event was familiar.
The St. Lucia choir would be performing in the sanctuary of the church shortly, so I headed there a little early to get a seat and unpack the mix of feelings I’d encountered at this festive community gathering where I didn’t really feel like I was part of the community, even though intellectually I knew I was.