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Bemidji Celebrates Santa Lucia Festival
By Tom Robertson
December 15, 1998
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For nearly 400 years, the people of Sweden have celebrated the Santa Lucia Festival on December 13th. According to the old Swedish calendar, the 13th was the longest night of the year, and legend holds that during a famine, a white-clad St. Lucia the lady of light appeared on a Swedish lake bringing food and ushering in warmer and brighter days. In Bemidji, locals of Swedish descent keep the Santa Lucia tradition alive with an annual celebration said to be one of the largest of its kind in the U.S.

IT'S 5:30 A.M. ABOUT 400 PEOPLE mill about outside a banquet hall in Bemidji, sipping hot apple cider and traditional Swedish Glugg, a mulled wine mixed with almonds and raisins.

Celebrants: It's supposed to be 20 degress below, though, when we drink this ... I don't know, it's pretty pleasant the way it is... Oh, it is, huh... It really warms the tummy on a cold morning.
Members of the Bemidji Affiliate of the American Swedish Institute have already been awake for several hours preparing for the festivities. For 23 years, Swedes in Bemidji have joined in the Santa Lucia celebration, diligently preserving it as it was, and is, celebrated in their ancestral homeland.
O'Boyle: It's so nice that people have accepted a tradition without wanting to change it or do anything. I don't know, maybe we're more traditional than in Sweden. But this is how it's been done for several centuries.
Monica O'Boyle is a native of Stockholm and helped organize Bemidji's first Santa Lucia Festival in 1976. O'Boyle says Lucia was Italian, and no one is really sure how her legend came to be celebrated so enthusiastically in Sweden.
O'Boyle: Well, Lucia, she lived in the year, around 300. She was a Sicilian girl and she was betrothed to a Roman soldier. But she was Christian and he would have none of that. She would not renounce her Christianity. So as a punishment, they poked her eyes out. She was blind.
A rather gory tale, but by the 17th century, the legend filtered north, losing its element of tragedy, and instead turning into a Swedish Yuletide celebration of hope for the beginning of the end of long, cold, winter days. Bonnie Lundorf, whose daughter Lindsi Schmidt was selected as this year's Santa Lucia, says Lucia has been a holiday tradition in her family for years.
Lundorf: Well, for a lot of people, it's the way to start the Christmas season, and that's the way I looked at it when I first started coming to the festival about 18 years ago. It's just a good way to start the season. You leave here that morning and you feel warm, and you feel rich in tradition and it's a good warm feeling.
By about ten minutes to six, the crowd is allowed to file into the banquet hall, where, after entertainment from a children's Tomte Choir, the lights are extinguished. The crowd waits silently for Santa Lucia and her entourage.
O'Boyle: When everyone is seated, the lights go out all over, and in comes Lucia, and she's dressed in (a) white dress with a red sash and a crown of live candles in her hair. And she's followed by attendants, also in white, but they have tinsel crowns and tinsel around their waists, and they all carry a candle, and it's pitch dark. It's very beautiful.
It is probably this part of the tradition - the magical candlelight procession - that brings people back year after year.
Celebrants: And so on this dark day, she brings the light to all of us, and for us now, it's a great entry into the Christmas holiday season ... It's an incredible event. And not the least of the least of the incredible parts of it is that this many people get up this early in the morning to do this. I think it's kind of a joyous remembrance of our heritage, of our ethnic heritage. Maybe of the things, whatever it was, that brought my grandparents to this country from Sweden. I think it's popular because people want to hang on to some of those traditions that may be lost in the world of high technology.
If there are some who are not moved by the candles and music, they must certainly be satisfied by the food. The Santa Lucia Festival ends with a traditional Swedish smorgasbord of cold cuts and cheese, potato sausage, Swedish meatballs, and pickled herring.