Deidra Allen, 16, balanced a crown of tall, white candles precariously on her head and, dripping wax, walked in measured steps down the aisle of Augustana Lutheran Church.
Dressed in a long, white robe tied with a scarlet ribbon and bedecked with greens and a tinsel wreath, she portrayed this year's Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy), the third century Italian Catholic martyr honored each Christmas season in Sweden.
Her attendants -- "star boys" in white choir robes carrying glittering stars on sticks, and young girls in white and tinsel -- marched before her carrying lighted candles. The long procession lit the darkened church. All of them sang in Swedish the old Neapolitan melody "Santa Lucia," which originated in Naples in the neighborhood named for the saint.
It was the annual celebration of the Luciafest at Augustana Lutheran Church, New Hampshire Avenue at V St., NW.
According to Swedish custom predating the Reformation, on the morning of St. Lucia Day -- Dec. 13 -- the eldest daughter in each family dons a white dress and a crown of lighted candles and serves the rest of the family coffee and buns while singing "Santa Lucia."
Catholic tradition indicates that Lucia was born to rich, noble parents in Syracuse on the island of Sicily during the third century A.D. She became a Christian and took a vow of virginity. She was betrothed against her will and spent her dowry on the poor and needy. On learning she had no dowry, her fiance denounced her as a Christian to the Roman governor. Eventually she was blinded and slain by her betrothed.
The memory of the Catholic Lucia, whose name is derived from the Latin word for "light", has been cherished for centures in Protestant Sweden and Norway where, because of the northern latitude, winters are long and dark, and light takes on special significance.
Before Gregorian calendar reform, the Dec. 13 feast of Santa Lucia fell on the year's longest night, when the sun reaches its winter solstice and the days at last begin to grow longer.
Sunday's re-enactment of the traditional Swedish celebration drew an eclectic crowd of worshippers and those who came simply to enjoy the pageantry of the Luciafest.
Deidra Allen poured coffee in the fellowship room downstairs after the service, and offered visitors special buns called "Lucia kats."
"I have wax all in my hair," she moaned. She attends Northwestern High School in Hyattsville where she lives, and has been coming to Augustana Lutheran since she was born. She was nervous -- "I guess from carrying the crown," she admitted -- but said that learning Swedish words to "Santa Lucia" was not difficult.
"I never thought I'd be learning Swedish," allowed Primrose Mushala, 16, one of Santa Lucia's attendants, who is from Tanzania. "There's no resemblance of words" to English, she said. "This (language) is totally different."
For many in the crowd, the Luciafest is the beginning of the Christmas season.
"We do it every year early in December, and it's very popular," said Anna Bjorson, who claims Swedish ancestry on both sides of her family.
"What I really like about it is that the church is no longer just a Scandinavian congregation, but has people of many ethnic (backgrounds) and races, and the (Santa Lucia) celebration includes everyone," said Carol Ann Capps, who narrated the story of the saint. She wore a traditional costume from the Swedish province of Blekinge -- red stockings, red skirt, white lace apron, black embroidered vest and a white blouse. She had folded a starched, white, lace trimmed scarf to a double point in her hair.
"It is beautiful," said Herman Davis, a systems analyst from Silver Spring, who had two children in the pageant. "It's a good way to start Christmas off. It's a family oriented program."
Dale Dusman, who manages a pet store, brought 20 friends with him from Baltimore to attend the service. He said he comes every year because no church in Baltimore holds a Luciafest.
Rev. William V. Montgomery said Augustana Lutheran was the center for Swedish-Lutheran work in the United States during the 1950s. He said his congregation now is well integrated and has Scandinavians and others, including members from Tanzania and Nigeria.
Lorraine Johnson of Arlington, president of the Lutheran Church Women of Augustana, said a board of church women selects a girl to portray Santa Lucia. She must be unmarried and an active member of the church. Her daughter Kristin Johnson, 25, recalled how it felt to be Santa Lucia when she was a teen-ager.
"It was very important. It was an honor, definitely," she said. "You kind of got the feeling you were special, as much as Lucia was."
The group will perform the Luciafest again at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Annual Christmas Tea at the International Student House, 1825 R St. NW.