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Dakota Life: Santa Lucia Festival

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In the packed church basement of Dalesburg Lutheran in rural Clay County, carols sung in both Swedish and English fill the small space while a processional of young girls are led by a white-robed, candle-crowned “St. Lucia.” Guests enjoy frukt suppa (fruit soup) and lefse (a potato flatbread) while door prizes consist of a bucket of pickled herring and a case of lutefisk. The celebrations during this, the darkest week of the year, stretch back to not just early Christendom but well beyond.

The St. Lucia Festival smorgasbord awaits the packed house at Dalesburg Lutheran Church.

Far before it was known as “Christmastime,” mid-December was celebrated by Germanic and Scandinavian cultures as Yule season (yes, that yule of the tidings and the log). Yule coincided with the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, and was the corresponding holiday with the Midsummer celebration, the Summer Solstice or longest day of the year.

An old wood cut with the original Yule Log tradition of burning a large log over the 12 days of the Yuletide season--far pre-dating the endless TV loop and the cake versions.

On the old Julian calendar, December 13 was marked as the official solstice day and prior to Christianity reaching the far north, it was celebrated in Sweden as “Lussinnatta” or in Norway as Lussi Langnatte—Lussi Long-Night. According to ancient tradition, all work in preparation for the Yule celebration must be completed by the longest night of the year when the witch-like creature Lussi and her followers would descend and punish those who did not finish their work on time. Children were especially afraid for it was said that if they had misbehaved, she would come down their chimney and snatch them away. Someone in the household had to stay up all night to protect the home during the darkest night of the year, which often turned into all-night parties within family homes.

Nil's Bergslien's painting "Julereia" (1922) shows the mythical Lussi snatching a child while riding her broom.

As Christianity spread across Europe, many of the local cultural traditions and celebrations were merged with those of the early church. Yuletide became Christmastide but rituals such as the Yule Log and the singing of carols (wassailing) accompanied the holiday into its new incarnation. Sometime during the Protestant Reformation in the 1520s and 1530s, Nordic countries began celebrating the feast of St. Lucia on December 13.

According to tradition, Lucia was born on the island of Sicily to wealthy parents around the year 283 A.D. Her father died and left the family without adequate means so her mother sought to betroth her to a wealthy pagan, despite the fact that Lucia was a devout Christian. Praying to Saint Agatha to seek help for her mother’s illness, it is said that the saint appeared to Lucia and told her the illness would be cured through faith. Saying thus, Lucia was able to convince her mother to cancel the wedding and donate the dowry to the poor. Her potential suitor was enraged and reported her to the authorities for the offense of being a Christian.

The Roman authorities ordered Lucia to be taken to a brothel and forced into prostitution. But according to apocryphal texts, they could not move her from the spot even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling her. They next attempted to build a fire around her and burn her, but the wood refused to burn as she continued to pray and speak about her faith. Finally, a soldier struck a spear to her throat to stop her speaking, but Lucia was only able to die when given the Christian last rites. She died in Syracuse in 304 A.D. and was one of the first and most popularly recognized saints of early Christendom. Her official feast day, perhaps not coincidentally for the developing church, was named December 13.

A statue of Santa Lucia in Syracuse, Siciliy.

The traditions of St. Lucia day in Scandinavia are built around a story from her life where it was said that while Lucia was working to help Christians hiding in the catacombs during the terror under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and in order to bring with her as many supplies as possible, she needed to have both hands free. She solved this problem by attaching candles to a wreath on her head. And it is in that mold that she is featured in modern celebrations.

Today, St, Lucia Day, is celebrated on or near December 13 with a ceremony where a young girl is elected to portray Lucia. A formal procession is held, led by the elected “Lucia” wearing a white gown with a red sash to represent her martyrdom and a crown of candles on her head. Each girl in the procession carries a candle to symbolize the fire that refused to take St. Lucia's life when she was sentenced to be burned. The women sing a Lucia song while entering the room, to the melody of the traditional Neapolitan song Santa Lucia; the Italian lyrics describe the view from Santa Lucia in Naples, the various Scandinavian lyrics are fashioned for the occasion, describing the light with which Lucia overcomes the darkness. In Sweden, a special saffron-infused bun called a “Lussekatt” (St. Lucia bun) is served and is often part of a greater community feast.

A old Swedish postcard portrays a traditional "Santa Lucia" with the crown of candles and bringing baked goods to serve her family with the salutation of "God Jul", or "Merry Christmas.

South Dakota’s large Scandinavian population brought the tradition of St. Lucia Day to their new home in the late 1800s. To this day, several churches and communities across the state still celebrate St. Lucia, complete with saffron buns and songs sung in Swedish or Norwegian.

One such place is the community of Dalesburg in the southeastern part of the state. Settled by a group of Swedish people hailing primarily from the Dalarna province of Sweden (hence the name Dalesburg), they brought their solstice traditions with them. Though the physical town of Dalesburg is long gone, Dalesburg Lutheran Church and its rural congregation still keep their spirit of their town and its original settlers burning brightly. Dalesburg celebrated its 150thMidsommar and 42nd St. Lucia Festival in 2019.

The program for the 2019 St. Lucia Tradition at Dalesburg.

Dalesburg’s St. Lucia Festival features all of the best-known components of the traditional Swedish event: The crowning of a St. Lucia from amongst the congregant’s young women, Swedish Christmas songs and a feast of the saffron St. Lucia buns. In addition, the church serves a smorgasbord of traditional Swedish foods such as Risgruns grot (a rice porridge) and lingon sylt (lingonberry jam) while offering an educational program, this year from Dr. Julia Marin Hellwege, USD Political Science professor who hails from Stockholm, Sweden.

Prayers and hymns alike are celebrated in both English and Swedish during Dalesburg's St. Lucia Festival.

Once everyone has eaten their fill and the Lucia court has passed around a plate of fantastically designed Swedish cookies, a packed house lends its voice to the final song of the afternoon, “Nu år det jul igen”:

:/: Nu är det jul igen,

Och nu är det jul igen,

Och julen vara intoll påska :/:

:/: Men det var inte sant,

Men det var inte sant,

För däremellan kommer fasta. :/:

:/: Christmas is here again, and,

Christmas is here again,

And Christmas last until it’s Easter. :/:

:/: But that just isn’t true,

But that just isn’t true,

‘Cause Lent does come right in between them. :/: