Santa Lucia

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Being married to a Swede is an endless series of small pyrotechnic surprises, and never more so than around the holidays. Because Swedes even more than Americans are mad for the holidays. In late August I always find myself sitting around a picnic table with a small army of Swedes and their American spouses, singing as we disembowel crayfish.

And this past week in December I found myself at my first Lucia party. There were no crayfish, but it was a strange and lovely party. Everyone brought food, and most of it was beautiful and recognizable: delicate yellow Lucia buns, dusted with saffron, and meatballs. But as always with a Swedish dinner, there were other dishes less familiar, and there was a pickling jar full of pieces of fish no longer recognizable as fish, and as I always do, I stayed away from that jar.

There were twenty-two or three of us, and one very long table. I thought we’d never all fit into that tight space. But it turns out there’s a touching old Swedish saying that everyone knew but me: Finns det hjrterum so finns det stjrterum, which means Where there’s heart-room, there’s butt-room.

And so it was, everyone scrunched into their spot, and we ate and sang a song. I ate and pretended to sing, since I didn’t know the tune or the words. I’ve become a fairly accomplished pretend singer over the last four years.

And then, at a certain point, all the mothers and all the daughters disappeared, Annika and my daughter Gwendolyn too. Someone turned off the lights, and there was this tingly, expectant air like you get at a surprise party just before the guest of honor opens the door.

And all the sudden, I realized, I had no idea who Santa Lucia was. So I asked our friend Marie, and she whispered this long story about a Roman woman named Lucia from the fourth century. Supposedly Lucia delivered food to early Christians hiding in caves on the outskirts of the city, and to light her way she wore a crown of candles in her hair. Lucia’s family wanted her to marry a rich nobleman who wasn’t a Christian, and Lucia refused. Her family insisted, though, and eventually Lucia called on heaven to prevent the marriage. And when they tried to move Lucia from the hall, they couldn’t budge her. They tied ropes to her hands, and yoked oxen to the ropes, and still they couldn’t move her. Finally, they managed to kill her with a sword but she died a virgin martyr.

I loved this story, but then I realized that this was an Italian saint we were talking about, and I asked Marie why Swedes celebrate an Italian martyr. And Marie said, “I don’t know.”

Anyway, just then word was passed that the Lucia procession was about to start, and although I had no idea what the Lucia procession was I tried to look knowing and proud. And then I heard the singing, as the mothers and the daughters came up from the basement, where they’d dressed themselves in long plain white gowns. They’d woven garlands in their hair, and as they came forward they were carrying little battery operated candles. All of the little girls were at the front, Gwendolyn, Olivia, Karin, small hands linked. One little boy, Max, was holding a wand with a star at the tip. And behind them the mothers, all of them singing the song they’d been teaching the children for months, part of which goes:

“Look at our threshold. There she stands, white-clad, with lights in her hair, Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.”

Now, look, I’m the first one to change the station when someone starts waxing lyrical about his two-and-a-half year old, but I tell you this: I looked at my daughter standing there in her white gown, blonde hair done in a kind of early Meet-the-Beatles cut, holding her electric candle, singing about the dark woods and the coming light, and I felt something I’ve never felt before. My heart expanded like a dirigible, an airship of light towering up over the frozen northern tip of Burlington, Vermont. I felt, in a word, like a Swede.

Or an Italian. Or something like that.

–Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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