I time-travel to before I was born
Split personalities – that was our family: part French Canadian, part Swede, with the hidden German perhaps holding the two together inside us. My dad the spontaneous flamboyant French Canadian, my mom the thoughtful reserved Swede. As Dad ran the family, the values of the Swede inside me often felt overshadowed. It used to feel like the “dull” part of me. But as an adult I sense solidness in this Swede inside and I search to know and affirm this quiet thoughtful part of myself.
I also seek elucidation on some mysterious parts of myself. Somewhere inside I’ve always felt a prohibition against bragging, and this has cost me a lot. And it’s so strong! It feels as if the worst sin I could commit would be to stand out and show off. Along with this is a natural concern for the well-being of others, a group-mindedness. My second sister (out of three), eight years younger than I, looks Swedish as I do and lives by the very same altruistic modest values. My sisters two and ten years younger than me look French Canadian and live by what I would call French values. The central drive seems to be to enjoy as much of the world as possible (the famous ‘joi de vivre’), to take good care of themselves and to make their own lives as wonderful as possible, all beautiful values but kind of opposite the Swedes.
I’ve puzzled mightily over my inability to show myself and my accomplishments and my natural putting others first. A friend told me of someone she knows who lives in a Scandinavian community in Massachusetts. He told her this is a basic Scandinavian law: An individual is not to take credit for doing well! With Swedes, every person should naturally do their best, but pride we take as a group. One should not stand out or call attention to one’s self or one’s individual achievements. This is actively frowned upon, disapproved of. I was amazed to think I may have inherited this taboo in my very genes!
Living in Chicago I have opportunities to get to know the Swede inside me. One fun Swedish experience happens each December 13th, the Lucia Fest at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville, the only remnant left of many Swedish settlements in the Chicago area. Though I was raised in a Swedish town in Michigan and we kept various food customs at Christmas, for reasons I don’t know, none in our town did the Lucia Fest.
But here in Chicago all is possible. So tonight, my first experience of the Lucia Fest, I arrive early at the church because I feel a serious hunger to experience this. I choose a seat on the inside aisle so I can see well whatever’s going to happen. I expect “beauty” to be a part of tonight, and some kind of celebration of light in darkness, with the help of “young maidens,” who always stand for beauty.
An older couple climb over me and sit down. The woman tells me she comes from far down the genealogical line of “being Swedish”, but she still thinks of herself this way.
The celebration begins. We have programs with all the information. The pastor gives an introduction, then we rise and sing a Christmas song in Swedish with the translation alongside. I hear everyone sing out fairly loudly. We know how to pronounce this language from hearing it in childhood and feel happy to be making these familiar sounds that bring back memories. Perhaps we’ve been to Sweden once and listened to the lilt of people speaking “our tongue.” Quickly I see it: we are “WannaBe Swedes.”
We listen to the young girls’ choir sing a song in Swedish; they are obviously, like us, trying to pronounce and remember words that are mostly meaningless. Then we hear a heart-warming sharing by Mr. R. Johnson, Chairperson of the Board of the Swedish American Museum in Chicago. He remembers for us when he visited Sweden in the heart of winter back when he was in high school or college; how thrilled his heart was when he arrived at a train station in the night and saw the snow glistening everywhere, just as he had imagined Sweden would be in winter – dark and snowy and beautiful. I can feel something respond in my own heart – yes, we love to picture this winter scene with Mr. R. Johnson. This is our homeland, though we’ve never been there.
We happily stand and sing another long song in Swedish; I don’t even know the melody but it’s still fun to try. The Swedish Consulate greets us and we feel honored that she’s come to acknowledge us in our serious attempt to stay part of the homeland. She tells us how beautiful the Swedish Embassy is in Washington DC and that “it’s a stone’s throw from the Kennedy Center and you must all go visit it.” “Yes!” this little foreigner inside me responds. “Yes, of course I will go and see our embassy!”
I look around at the faces of the people. I know I have some particular look, a face like my Swedish grandfather, and these people look like me! And I feel their character too. What is it? If we were all Hispanic or Italian I suppose the children would be running happily around and even the adults would be boisterous, – they’d sing and chatter and move with energy. We are ‘reserved.’ We have quick, genuine smiles, but also a modesty and gentleness. I’ve often wondered how on earth we changed from the ferocious Vikings into the self-controlled Scandinavians of today. I only know that this character is in my very bones. I do not feel like a puzzle to myself here; I feel completely normal.
Finally we get to the Lucia part of this experience. After the men’s choir tries to sing a couple Swedish songs (pretty badly) then a young lady explains the legend of Sankta Lucia. St. Lucy was a young Christian woman in third century Italy. She wished to dedicate her life to Jesus, called the Christ, but her father had other ideas for her and betrothed her to a young local lad. Lucy then gave away all her dowry to the poor. Neither her father nor her fiance appreciated her attitude and together they had her tortured to death. So she’s been proclaimed a saint, and particularly a saint of the poor.
One winter in Sweden there was terrible famine and suffering; someone saw Sankta Lucia walking across a frozen lake bringing bread; she was wearing a white robe like an angel and had candles around her head. And so began this custom of the eldest daughter waking the family on this dark day each year with bread and coffee for breakfast. This is a special bread, a sweet bread shaped like an “S”.
Now, finally, Lucia and her court are coming! Each Lucia wins this honor on her merits, though it probably helps if the young lady has blond hair (not all Swedes do). The lights in the room darken and we hush and look back and center, just as if we awaited a bride. Then Lucia comes walking slowly down the aisle in the darkness and we all stand and smile with joy at this beautiful sight: she with five heavy candles secured around her head on a strong crown, and the other girls also in white robes, carrying candles in the darkness, and all sing a beautiful song (memorized in Swedish, of course). It truly is as I always expected – just lovely.
Lastly we all (try to) sing Silent Night in Swedish and are invited to the parish hall to be served sweet bread and drink non-alcoholic (non-genuine) glug by Lucia and her court. My heart is content: I’ve felt like a real Swede for one night, like I was in Sweden in another century, some time when life was difficult and religion held us up and it was the long winter. And out of the place of hardship and hunger, Sankta Lucia felt our need, heard us praying, and brought us bread across the quiet and gentle snow-covered landscape. I remember and am comfortable with this serious and gentle and generous part of myself and am glad to be who I am.