Swedes throughout the world celebrate the beginning of Christmas with a traditional St. Lucia festival. The once predominantly Swedish Augustana Lutheran Church in Northwest Washington Honored that tradition this week, but with an uncharacteristic twist.
For the first time, a black was chosen as the congregation's Lucia queen.
Jolene Stephenson, 17, of Upper Marlboro, has attended the church "every Sunday since I was born," she said.
Jolene lived in Washington until this spring. Her father, Joseph Stephenson, said the family has been attending Augustana Church ever since he "came home from work (19 years ago) and found two Augustana pastors in my living room.
"They encouraged us to come down for a visit. We did and we decided to join," Stephenson said.
Jolene, a senior at High Point High School, was always active in the church and served twice as a Lucia attendant before chosen queen this year.
As queen, she headed a church procession wearing the traditional white robe with a red sash, and a wreath with lighted candles on her head. (Her father made the wreath using holly from the backyard.) Younger girls and boys singing the "Lucia Song" in Swedish served as her attendants.
After the procession the Lucia queen and her attendants served traditional refreshments of "lussekats" (pastries) and coffee.
The feast of St. Lucia has been celebrated by Swedes since the 19th century, but the legend goes back to ancient time. Lucia was a Sicilian girl of wealthy parents who, according to legend, had a large dowry that she distributed to the poor.
Later her parents betrothed her to a Roman pagan. When he discovered she had no dowry, he told authorities she was Christian, and on Dec. 13, in the year 304 A.D., Lucia was totured and executed.
It is said that the Lucia legend was brought to Scandinavia by Christian Vikings. Lucia means "light" in Swedish and her feast day falls on the longest night of the year in Scandinavia.
In Sweden it is now customary on Dec. 13 for the oldest daughter in the family to rise at dawn, and wearing the traditional Lucia costume, serve pastry and coffee to each member of the family.
"The church became predominantly Swedish during the war and the '40s, when there was a big Lutheran influx into Washington," said Lorraine Johnson, president of the Lutheran Church Women.
"That was when this was considered the national church of Sweden. We kept birth and marriage records of Swedish citizens in the United States and sent them to the church in Sweden," Johnson said.
In 1947, the Rev. Clarence T. Nelson came to Augustana and instituted "Operation One Mile." He believed that this church was the church of the parish and that you should go out and get members from the parish," she said. "Ours was one of the first churches in Washington to become integrated," she added proudly.
"Probably the largest ethnic group here still has roots in Scandinavia," said Carol Johnson, a church member for over 18 years. "And about one-third of the congregation now is black." CAPTION: Picture, Lucia queen Jolene Stephenson leads Augustana Lutheran procession. By Larry Morris-The Washington Post