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Santa Lucia
Read on Minnesota Public Radio
By Nanci Olesen

Each year on this day at dawn, the oldest daughter in a Swedish household wears a long white robe, with a red sash at her waist and a crown of lit candles on her head. She is Santa Lucia, portraying the young Sicilian woman, who in thirteenth century Rome, gave away her dowry to the poor. Her fiance thought that was a bad idea and had her burned at the stake. He was frightened by the radical religion she was practicing: Christianity. The story goes that this young girl did not burn when flames were lit at her feet. She stood within the flames, still very much alive. A traveling Swede heard of this miracle and brought the story back to his dark and cold land. Lucia became the image of radiance, the bringer of light. An old Italian tune is sung with Swedish words:

“Natten gar tunga fjutt runt gar och stuva,
kring jord som sor fjullet, sku gorna ruva.”

In just a few moments, my girls, ages 9 and 11, will put on white dresses in the dark morning, as I stand nearby with the light of a single candle. They will tie red sashes around their waists. Just the other day my son asked, “MOM. Do I have to be a star boy this year?” He’s fourteen. “Naw...” I said, trying to act casual. He has worn the Star Boy hat and carried a white paper star on a stick, like a wand, preceding his sisters down the stairs, for years.

I will wait upstairs with the girls in the darkness until I hear our friends arrive. I will nervously light the candles on their crowns. At seven a.m. I will walk down the stairs and begin the Santa Lucia song on the piano. My first chords will probably be tentative and my voice will be raspy. Our daughters will come down the stairs, radiant Santa Lucias. I always have to carefully not look at them so that I won’t start to cry.

They will cluster in front of our guests and read the lines of the Santa Lucia story that they practiced last night.

Then we all sing “Angels We have Heard on High.” The girls’ faces will glow from the lit candles on their heads. We will serve an early morning feast of smoked fish, cheese, hardboiled eggs and coffee cakes.

This is how we begin our Christmas season. We tell this bold story of a woman doing what she believed in and transcending her punishment to stand, alive, amidst the flames. The light of the candles swelling into the darkness is the heart of the season ahead.

—Nanci Olesen
producer and host, MOMbo: 1990-2007


Nanci Olesen's commentaries that have aired on Minnesota Public Radio:

06 may 2005 • Mother's Day

17 dec 2004 • Santa Lucia

02 dec 2004 • Holiday Blues

10 sept 2004 • First Week of School

09 july 2004 • Cell Phones

10 march 2004 • Circus Food

Dad in Church

Nanci Olesen's commentaries that have been published in magazines:

May 2002 • Road Trip


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