It is a cold December evening in our small town of Oakland, Nebraska. Dressed in my Christmas finest, I am seated in a century-old wooden pew with my brothers. A Swedish flag has been pinned to my dress by Elsie, the (nearly) century-old curator of the Swedish Heritage Center, as was her custom. The sanctuary of First Covenant Church has been transformed—evergreen garlands and sparkling white lights grace the arches high above us, giving the room a majestic and magical feel. I wait eagerly for the lights to go dim. The music starts and we turn to watch her come up the aisle.
She is dressed in a white gown with a red sash around her waist, a wreath of evergreen branches on her head topped by a crown of flaming white candles. I hold my breath as she, along with her attendants, pass in front of me, their candles lighting the darkness. My mother’s soprano voice is heard from the front, singing the name of this angelic vision, “Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia!”
When asked about my cultural heritage, I often say that I am Swedish by immersion. Though only 1/32 Swede by blood, I grew up in a farming town of 1,200 people in rural Nebraska until I was ten years old. This town ardently celebrated its Swedish heritage, and my parents—especially my mother—eagerly joined in. Almost as soon as I could walk I was dancing with my father to Scandinavian folk tunes and sporting flower wreaths in my hair at the annual Swedish Festival.
Christmas is an especially rich time. The annual Santa Lucia Day celebration on December 13 was very special. A long-standing Swedish tradition, this day celebrates St. Lucia, a Christian martyr who was killed for her faith in 304AD. The red sash represents her death by the sword. The festival also lines up with the winter solstice; it is a festival of lights on the darkest day of the year. It is traditionally celebrated by the oldest daughter of a household rising early in the morning to dress in the white gown, red sash, and crown of lights. She then goes to wake each person, offering “Lussekatts,” special sweet buns made for the day.
I had my chance to play the role of St. Lucia. Once, when I was about nine years old, my mother and I decided to uphold the tradition at our own home. I (carefully!) walked through the dark house with candles on my head and took morning treats to my brothers and my dad. A few years later I was able to play the part again in our church’s “Christmas Around the World” production. It was an honor to be a part of this great tradition and share it with those around me.
Tradition and culture are important to me. Wherever I live, I seek to experience the local cultures and immerse myself in their richness. I once heard someone say, “Every family is its own culture.” This is why I love what I see at Newberg Friends Church—families coming together to live their lives in community where we can share our cultures and create a new one together.
Mary Harwood spent the last decade immersed in the culture of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where she worked as the chemistry lab manager after graduating in 2006. She married her college sweetheart, Corban, a math professor at George Fox, in June 2012, and they are expecting their first child in April.