I got to participate in another long-held holiday tradition Sunday morning, actually, when I attended a St. Lucia brunch. My mom's friend Cookie has been doing this as long as I can remember, hosting hordes of people for coffee and pastry to celebrate "the Swedish Christmas." When we were little, Cookie's daughter, DerDer, would play the role of the Lucia Bride, leading us into the dining room with the crown of candles on her head--tipped with gold foil, when we were very small, and thrillingly, fearsomely lit, when she was older. (Apparently battery-operated ones are now de rigeur.) DerDer married, last year, so the celebration has moved to her home.
There were a lot of new attendees this year, neighbors who didn't know the story, so DerDer and Cookie gave a little presentation. I didn't know much about the actual legend, either, it turns out. Lucia was an Italian saint, and it's not clear why the Swedes so fell in love with her. One story has Lucia, a devout Christian, refusing to marry a Pagan husband and putting out her own eyes. Another has her bringing bread to starving, persecuted Christians hiding in tunnels and caves; she wore candles on her head to free her hands and light the way. Yet another has her arriving in a harbor on a ship, bringing light, bringing food to the hungry.
When I was a kid, the processional part of the celebration seemed interminable--though I envied DerDer the attention, and her gripping role, fraught with danger. We'd gather around the table and listen to the traditional hymn--originally on a record, later copied onto cassette--a choir of children warbled verse after verse in Swedish or Latin or whatever, and some of the grownups would fumble along tunelessly, and all I wanted was to get it over with and get to the food. I was eager to line the pockets of my corduroy jumper with gingersnaps and start running up and down the stairs with DerDer and her three brothers, my sister and all the neighbor kids and cousins, shrieking and slamming each other's fingers in doors while the adults drank gallons of coffee and didn't notice when we kept slinking back to the table, keeping our blood sugar levels just on the frenzied side of a diabetic coma.
I don't know when it changed. I think it's partly Poppy's fault. DerDer's stepdad is legendarily, hilariously sentimental; he weeps at the proverbial drop of a hat, at Hallmark commercials and Notre Dame championships. When DerDer announced her engagement, Poppy cried for an entire year at the mere thought of walking her down the aisle. We mock poor Poppy, with great love...but even as we laugh, he has the power to get everyone else going too. (During the father/bride dance at the actual reception, my particular table of friends and family sobbed so hard the d.j. had to crank it to eleven to drown us out.)
So. This year, DerDer and her husband had actually burned the Sankta Lucia hymn onto a CD for her folks. This is close, but not quite the same version; you have to imagine it dubbed and redubbed off the original vinyl, with the pops and scratches, the needle hissing in the groove. DerDer pressed "Play." The introductory measures wavered across the living room. And...
...Poppy let out an audible, gulping sob and abruptly swiveled his Barcalounger to face the wall.
So. Yeah, we all giggled tenderly at Poppy. But it's a long hymn, and you have a lot of time to look at the tree, and the candles glowing, and the faces of family and friends and the babies they have now. You think about being kids, all in a sugared-up Christmas lather; you think of your Grammy, and DerDer's grandma KittyCoat, neither of whom are with us any more. And let me tell you, you harrumph and sniffle and blinkblinkblink HARD at the ceiling to keep from getting mascara face...
...and finally, thank God, it's time to eat. To laugh at yourself, and blot your eyes with an IKEA napkin printed with a little blonde girl in a fiery crown, and hug your own mom and your extra one, Cookie, and Poppy and DerDer, and then hit the smorgasbord. Cardamom bread, generously slathered with butter. Buttered lefse, rolled up with cinnamon and sugar or with summer sausage. Almond ring. "Spritz" butter cookies. Gingersnaps and coffee with cream and soft yeast rolls with butter. Did I mention butter?
It was so lovely. I really feel like the holidays can now get underway. Of course, I consumed nothing but pastry and coffee and red wine for the entire day, so I could possibly be just addled by my nutritional deficiencies.
I did realize that I was fully in a new demographic, staring down the barrel of 35, when I spent a considerable portion of the brunch in DerDer's kitchen, admiring her retro-look electric percolator from Target. It combines classic style with modern convenience!