Like Victorian crazy quilts--those luxurious, richly colored comforters that were fashioned from various pieces of velvet, brocade and silk--so too, is the fabric of Mrs. Sharp's winter holiday season woven from threads of different ethnic traditions. There are two very sensible reasons for this.
It is festive and fitting.
Which is why in the next week Mrs. Sharp's family will observe St. Lucia's Day, a custom sure to delight both the young and young-at-heart.
The traditional observance of St. Lucia's Day on Dec. 13 is the start of the Christmas celebration in Scandinavia, as it is today in many Swedish-American homes. On this morning, Swedish children awaken very early and don long white gowns. The girls wear long red sashes and lingonberry (mountain cranberry) wreaths and the boys wear white cone shaped hats with gold stars. Wearing a wreath of lighted candles on her head the eldest daughter--as St. Lucia--leads her brothers and sisters in a procession into their parents' darkened bedroom to deliver a surprise breakfast of such Scandinavian specialities as Saffransbrod (sweet saffron buns), Pepparkakor (gingersnaps) and cups of hot, steaming coffee.
Legend has it that once during a great famine in Sweden, St. Lucia miraculously appeared, her head circled in light, to deliver food. Observing St. Lucia's Day is a wonderful way for children to make a contribution to the family's Christmas traditions with this gift of love to their parents. Although in the beginning you may need to assist them (such as preparing the saffron buns ahead of time), it is well worth the time and effort.
If you would like to introduce this tradition to your family, a lovely story that does so is "Kirsten's Surprise," from the American Girls Collection ($4.95, paperback, published by Pleasant Co., Madison, Wis. 53701). Kirsten is a young Swedish immigrant who settles on the Minnesota prairie in 1854. While the Larson family is excited about celebrating its first Christmas in America, Kirsten wants to keep their old Swedish traditions alive in the new country. Secretly she plans a St. Lucia celebration for her family.
Now that she has aroused your interest, dear readers, Mrs. Sharp hardly wants to dampen your enthusiasm for this enchanting Old World tradition, but she would like to stress that no daughter of hers ever walked around our house wearing a wreath of lighted candles.
Instead, when the children were small she adapted this charming Christmastide custom by fashioning crowns of greenery and red ribbons for all the children to wear at a festive candlelit breakfast.
But this year our St. Lucia, chosen by lot (a practice highly recommended when there is more than one daughter) can wear a pretty and safe St. Lucia's crown, thanks to the American Girls Collection. Besides books, this imaginative company also offers beautiful dolls, dresses and historically accurate accessories that help make the stories in their series come alive for girls 5 to 12 years old. They have imported a lovely battery-operated St. Lucia head wreath from Sweden ($30). (For a catalogue or information, call 1 (800) 845-0005).
Many customs from other countries come with their own special foods which Mrs. Sharp tries to incorporate into her family's celebrations. "Breaking bread together," as the beautiful expression reminds us, draws family and friends together in a special way. Many of our family's most memorable moments take place at a meal.
Using food as a focus for adding new traditions to the family is also practical. Evelyn Birge Vitz, author of a wonderful cookbook "A Continual Feast" ($16.95, Harper & Row, San Francisco) discovered this while trying to explain the meaning of a religious feast day to her five children. When she noticed her children's eyes getting that glassy look all mothers know so well, she suggested they bake a cake together and decorate it with the holiday's symbols. By the time the family was finished, a new tradition had been created and the children had a better understanding of their religious heritage.
In this collection of recipes (including an assortment for St. Lucia's Day), customs, literary, gastronomic and biblical quotations to nourish both body and soul, you will find many reasons to celebrate the joys of family and faith throughout the year.
Mrs. Sharp has discovered no more tangible or enriching way to teach children tolerance than by incorporating different ethnic traditions into your family's holiday repertoire. Hosting a posada (a Mexican tradition recalling the arrival of Mary and Joseph at the inn), baking a trip around the world with Danish, German and Italian Christmas cookies, or serving parents a St. Lucia's Day breakfast, all help children understand the true spirit of this season of good will while strengthening family bonds and creating happy memories.