Most Erie Ethnic Festivals are Over. It's Time for the Swedes: The Last Word
I'm an old guy. I've been around for quite a while and never in my life have I eaten pickled herring. But, it's December and it's time for a special celebration called the St. Lucia Festival of Lights.
The festival is organized each year by members of the Erie lodge of a Swedish-American fraternal organization called VASA. They have been getting ready for the big day. The traditional food has already been prepared. That includes the pickled herring and the cookies. The members are now ironing the costumes children will wear for the festival. It honors St Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs.
Lynnette Gustafson is the festival chairperson.
"We call it the Festival of Lights in Sweden. Norway does it. All of the Scandinavian countries do it. It's the Day of Light and it starts on December 13th."
Scandinavian tradition calls for the eldest daughter of the house to dress as St. Lucia. She wears a white robe with a red sash and has a wreath of candles on her head. She wakes up her family serving coffee and baked goods. There's also public ceremonies such as the one held for the past 50 years in Erie. At those ceremonies, the girl chosen as St. Lucia is joined in a procession by several other children portraying handmaidens and Star Boys.
"They process in and it's just beautiful,” says Lynnette. “They sing some Christmas songs that a lot of people know. There's also hymns. We make it a small church service."
The ceremony brings back childhood memories to those who, years later, are ironing the children’s costumes. Lynnette has chaired the past 30 festivals held at Luther Memorial Church on West 10th Street. She portrayed St. Lucia when she was 16.
"It's something I hold very dear to my heart and I'm passing it on to the kids. I want them to love it. I'm very proud of our heritage," says Lynnette.
The Erie VASA chapter was founded in 1914 with 200 families as members. It's now down to 48 members. Pat Bellingham, Lodge #296 chairperson, is asking for people to join them.
"We are now into Scandinavian, Norwegian, Icelandic, Finnish, Danish. You don't even have to have Swedish DNA to be a part of our group. You just have to like Swedes. What's not to like?” says Pat with a laugh.
The St. Lucia Festival is held in Erie every year on the Sunday nearest December 13. This year’s festival will be Sunday, December 10 at Luther Memorial Church at 225 West Tenth Street. It begins at 4 p.m. It's free of charge and all are invited. You don't have to be Swedish and you don't have to eat the pickled herring!