42: St. Lucia Surprise

42: St. Lucia Surprise

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas

St. Lucia Surprise

Grandchildren are the dots that connect the lines from generation to generation.

~Lois Wyse

Fffft. The match flares orange, creating a pinpoint of light in the December darkness. It is 6:30 a.m. and my ten-year-old twin daughters and I stand in my mother-in-law’s driveway, shivering. Underneath their white dresses, the girls wear long johns and winter boots, but still, without coats, hats, and mittens, they’re uncomfortable. We’d better get moving.

I light the candle and hand it to Chloe.

“What about my crown?” Leah whispers.

From the car, I get her headpiece — a crown of plastic candles topped with battery-operated bulbs — and set it on her head. Then I grab the boom box. “Let’s go.”

The crown and candle glow as we creep, giggling conspiratorially, up the steps to Sylvia’s front door.

“Do you think she’s awake?” Chloe asks.

The house is dark. “I don’t think so.”

“What if she doesn’t hear the doorbell?” Leah worries.

There’s only one way to find out. One of us presses it. After a minute passes with no response, I knock. Loudly.

Soon we hear footsteps. Fingers trembling with excitement, I press the play button on the boom box and the strains of a Swedish holiday folk song fill the starry morning.

“San-ta Lu-ciiiia, Santa Lucia.”

When the chorus starts, we sing along as Sylvia, wearing a bathrobe and looking sleep-rumpled, opens the door.


As mothers-in-law go, Sylvia is a keeper. She’s easygoing, loves to spend time with my girls, and never criticizes my housekeeping. But we are very different. She’s a go-getter; she has loads of friends, and is usually out with one of them — seeing a play, attending a quilt show, or biking a wooded trail. I, on the other hand, have a few close, trusted friends, abhor busyness (and biking), and can easily spend hours in the bathtub reading a book. At times, our differences have led to misunderstandings.

Several years ago, Sylvia planned a picnic. We were to drive an hour to a park where we’d spend the morning with my husband’s sister and her family. When the day arrived, everyone was ready to go except me. It had been a busy week, and I needed time to refuel. My husband was fine with my last-minute decision to stay home, but when he returned from the picnic, I found out that Sylvia hadn’t been.

He repeated part of their conversation: “Doesn’t Sara like us?” Sylvia had asked. “Why doesn’t she come to more family events?”

“Of course she likes you,” he had said. “She just needs a lot of alone time.”

I pressed my husband for details. “What did she say to that?”

“I don’t think she understood,” he said. “You know what she’s like; she hates being alone for more than a few hours.”

I felt hurt, defective, and a bit anxious — not the best state of mind for resolving a conflict. But remaining silent had caused problems for me before. That’s why, when Sylvia stopped by later that evening, I took a deep, wobbly breath and confronted her.

“I hear you think I don’t like you.”

She looked uncertain. “Oh, it’s not that. I just… I just don’t understand why you don’t come to things sometimes. Explain it to me.”

So I tried to explain my introverted personality. In the end, she accepted what I said. But in spite of the hug that ended our conversation, I was left with a nagging inner need to show my affection for her.

Several months later, my daughters and I visited the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. On our tour, we learned about St. Lucia Day, celebrated on December 13th in Sweden.

In the Swedish tradition, the oldest daughter in the family wakes her parents on St. Lucia morning (one of the darkest days of the years) by singing to them. Wearing a white dress and a crown of candles on her head, she serves buns, cookies, and coffee. Other children in the family carry candles or star-tipped wands.

I’d heard about this holiday from Sylvia; she had celebrated it years before at the Swedish Lutheran church in her South Dakota hometown. Often, she’d recounted how she’d worn the crown (lit with real candles!) and served cookies to the ladies of the church on St. Lucia Day — which also happened to be her birthday.

Remembering that, I had an idea on the way home from the Institute: “Girls, wouldn’t it be fun if we showed up at Grandma’s door on St. Lucia morning?”

I bought white dresses and a crown online and borrowed a Swedish music CD from the library. We baked pepparkakor and luciakatter — ginger cookies and saffron-flavored buns — and picked up Scandinavian-blend coffee beans at the grocery store. On St. Lucia Eve, we laid everything out, ready for an early start the next morning. It was going to be an excellent surprise.


But now, as we wait for Sylvia to answer the door, I feel a pang of uncertainty. Will she think this is as fun an idea as I do? After all, we are so very different.

Her reaction puts my fears to rest.

“Oh, oh, oh!” she cries, her face beaming as she reaches out to hug us.

Inside, we sit around her kitchen table. While munching cookies and buns and drinking coffee with lots of milk and sugar, the girls excitedly rehash every moment of the morning for Sylvia: what time they got up, how we worried she might not be home, how cold it was standing in her driveway. After laughing and talking for an hour, we go out into a frigid, sunny morning, feeling warmed by her declaration that we’ve given her the best birthday surprise ever.

That was four Decembers ago. We’ve been “surprising” Sylvia ever since, and we intend to continue. The tradition has changed a bit over time; we sing the song ourselves (in English) instead of playing it on the boom box, the girls trade off wearing the candle crown, and we all go out to breakfast at our favorite pancake house afterward.

However it looks, our December 13th visit to Sylvia’s house has become one of my favorite holiday traditions. Besides being unusual and celebrating my daughters’ ethnic heritage, it gives me a chance to remind my mother-in-law that, even though I’m not a social butterfly, I like being with her.

Even at six-thirty in the morning.

~Sara Matson

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