While many were out last Sunday fulfilling Christmas shopping duties, my friend Kristina invited me to join her and her husband for a traditional Swedish Julfest service at Seattle's First Covenant Church. Never having been to a Julfest celebration despite a strong strain of Swedish running through my blood, I jumped at the chance.
It turns out that 2008 is the 50th anniversary of the Julfest at First Covenant. From the balcony of the traditional pastel and gold painted sanctuary, I could see bright spots of red amid the congregation, as many came dressed in one of Sweden's most popular traditional colors (and if anyone has wondered why I love red in home decor so much, now you know it's in my blood). For this special occasion a choir of beautiful young Swedes had even traveled nearly halfway across the globe to join the celebration. Their clear voices filled the church with the lilting music of Swedish Christmas carols.
A cross between a concert, church service, and Santa Lucia celebration, the service was filled with music, sung almost entirely in Swedish, along with lessons read from a Swedish Bible. My tongue stumbled over the words of my ancestors as I attempted to recite the Lord's Prayer and join in on the congregational hymns. Thankfully, translations were provided in the bulletin, and a few of the words, with their similarities to German, didn't appear completely unfamiliar. Also thankfully, the homily and announcements were in English.
The children's choir sang about pepparkakor as three little girls dressed as the titular gingerbread cookies, danced in a circle. Another of the children's songs told of the mysterious, tiny Tomte who come at night to eat the Christmas leftovers, as the smallest of the boys made his way throughout the congregation in a long grey beard and red cap, carrying his lantern.
The highlight was, of course, the Santa Lucia procession. With only candlelight to show the way, the Lucia bride serenely made her way to the front of the altar, her crown of five lighted candles tied firmly in place with a wide chinstrap. One by one, the Lucia attendants made their way to join her, also dressed in red-sashed white robes, but without the crown of candles. Finally the star boys came to the front, although the pressure of standing still was apparently too much for one of them, who soon abandoned his post and ran down the aisle as the young women sweetly sang "Santa Lucia" to an enraptured audience.
Once the service ended, the crowd of hundreds squeezed into the tiny narthex, packing around tables offering Christmas cookies and buttered bread or rye krisp with cheese. I grabbed a rye krisp on my way out, reminded of the late dinners of rye crackers and cheese my family sometimes has around Christmastime. It's good to see these traditions live on, and to feel, maybe just a little, what my great-great grandparents may have felt themselves each year at Julfest.