Keeping Tradition Alive

by Amelia Kanan

I don’t look it and I never have but it’s a fact that I’m Swedish. Since my melanin was dominated by my dad’s Mediterranean genes, I’ve had to wear my ethnic pride on my sleeve. And when I say “ethnic” I mean Swedish, not Lebanese.

I’m not embarresed to be Lebanese or ashamed but since my dad was the youngest of 11 with immigrant parents, a lot of the culture was lost. No one speaks Arabic and my big fat assimilated Lebanese family would rather watch football than slaughter and roast a lamb. They’re amazing and I love them but culturally, they’re pretty American.

It’s my mom’s side that strives to keep cultural tradition alive. We have a lot of Swedish pride, to say the least.

That brings me to: Sankta Lucia. Although Sweden is not a religious country in terms of faith they do hold this certain day sacred. Sankta Lucia (Swedish pronunciation: Loo-see-ahh), an Italian saint who gave her dowry to the poor, which pissed her fiancee off so they blinded her, threw her into a fire and when she didn’t burn, they stabbed her in the heart. Supposedly after this, she appeared in Sweden during a famine,  bringing food to farmers, while walking over a lake and ever since then she has been honored in Swedish history. She is associated with light so on December 13, the shortest day of the year in Sweden, the oldest daughter of the household wakes up early, ties a red sash around her white nightgown (symbolizing the blood from her stabbed heart) and wears a wreath with candles on her head. She bakes a Swedish coffee cake (we made pepparkarkar or sockerkaka and when I say “we” I mean, my mom) and serves her family breakfast in bed. Then, she goes and serves her neighbors and teachers. It’s basically the kickoff for the holiday season, in Sweden.

Being the proud little Swedish girl I was, I wanted to be Sankta Lucia…through and through. So, when I was 9, I told my teachers about this tradition and asked if I could share it with the class by dressing up, serving cake and explaining the tradition to my class. They were all about it and so was I. That year went well. Probably because I went to school in my uniform and changed into the nightgown garb only for a class period. Unlike, the following years to come…

That first year had gone so well that I got a little comfortable in my character so the next year…I didn’t ask my teacher, I told her “Listen, I’m Swedish and we have this tradition that requires me to come to school in my nightgown and bring cake for everyone.” She had a few questions but she didn’t say “no”. December 13th rolled around and I walked into school with my winter coat and backpack over my white, probably see through, night gown and a wreath with candles on my head. Note: My mom didn’t trust me with real candles (which caused a huge fight) so, they were battery operated and had a switch to turn them on and off.

You could imagine what the kids in my class thought…and said. “Where are your clothes??” “Did you forget to get dressed?” I played it so cool, though…”Listen, guys, I know this is totally lame and weird but, I’m Swedish and we HAVE to do it…It’s so embarrassing. I really wish I didn’t have to do this.”

By the next year, everyone knew what to expect. I had a short conversation with my teachers, who already knew, just about the details of when I would give my spiel and the kids in my class were ready to have cake and deal with me being me.

I did this…embarrassingly, until I was in 8th grade. Once I got to high school, I was keen enough to know that would not be cool, even if I said it was a mandatory custom.

After college, I moved home for a bit before I moved out west and that December, I surprised my parents…at 5am. “Natten går tuna fjät rund gård och stuva; kring jord, som sol förlät,
skuggorna ruva. Då i vårt mörka hus, stiger med tända ljus, Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.”

My mom thought it was great and my dad yelled at me as well as my mom for encouraging the behavior. “Heidi! She’s not doing this because she wants to do something nice, she’s doing it to annoy us!” He still laughed and managed to polish the pepparkarkar off.

This December, we’re having a Sankta Lucia party with glug, a smorgasbord (we might have to have some hummus and grape leaves in there to appease my dad), and tomtes all around us. Sadly, I’ve retired the white nightgown but the wreath just might make an appearance and I think I’m ready to handle some real candles.