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Prime Time: The history of Sankta Lucia

Madeline Erickson, the 2010 Sankta Lucia, has her crown of candles lit before the 35th annual Sankta Lucia Fest last year at Beaux Arts Ballroom at Bemidji State University. The festival was hosted by members of the American Swedish Institute -- Bemidji Affiliate. Pioneer File Photo

The American Swedish Institute affiliate was co-founded in Bemidji by Edna Kroll and Monica O'Boyle in 1976 and the first Lucia Fest was held Dec. 13, 1977, in the Fireside Room of the Holiday Inn with Lynn Hansen as Sankta Lucia.

"My friend Monica O'Boyle was from Sweden from a highly placed family so she was able to play with the royal children. I was just a person who wanted to bring to Bemidji some Swedish traditions and events," said Edna Kroll during a recent phone interview. "Monica and I were very compatible and we worked together to get the ASI chapter in Bemidji. I was a teacher of home economics in the junior high at that time."

Although claiming to be the person who only did "the legwork," Kroll and her friend were successful in establishing the chapter which held the first Lucia Fest and Midsommar, which is still held each year on the Saturday closest to June 21, summer solstice. The members rent a May Pole and erect it in Library Park, select a Midsommar Queen, sing Swedish songs, play games and enjoy traditional foods like herring.

For the Swedes living in Bemidji back in the 70's who longed for a connection to their ancestral homes, O'Boyle supplied that connection in teaching Swedish and promoting traditional celebrations such as the Lucia Fest.

In Sweden, the eldest daughter of the house would wake the family at sunrise on Dec. 13 with a tray of buns and coffee. Dressed in a simple white gown with a red sash, she would wear a wreath of holly and lit candles to signify the break of day. Today in Sweden, Lucia might be the winner of a national contest and given the honor of appearing with her attendants and male escorts (star boys) in Stockholm at the Town Hall. After the morning events, Lucia visits local hospitals and orphanages to spread hope and joy and then finish the day with the Lucia Ball.

Here in Bemidji, the members of the affiliate make the Lucia buns and the food service at Bemidji State prepare a breakfast smorgasbord of traditional Swedish foods for the assembled guests in the Beau Arts Ballroom on the campus of BSU. As the sun rises over Lake Bemidji, the emcee will call forth the former Lucias and everyone sings Halsa Demm Der Hemma, a favorite Swedish American Folksong of immigrants longing for the homeland. The Bemidji Affiliate is one of very few chapters that still celebrates the holiday. This upcoming fest will be the 36th continuously held celebration with Jeanette Armstrong as Lucia, the symbol of light, the spirit of good will.

"At 94 and being legally blind it takes much effort to do the things I like to do," said Kroll. "My good friend Mary Betty Quistgard called me last week so I still have friends in Bemidji. In Sweden the holiday is celebrated for 20 days after Christmas. I am 100 percent Swedish and still celebrate the holidays with traditional foods and family gatherings in Minneapolis with my daughters, seven grandchildren and eleven great grandchildren on Christmas Eve. Isn't that something for someone who was an only child! I live independently in my own apartment in Park Shore, St. Louis Park, and enjoy hearing from my friends and keeping up with Bemidji."

There are people who deserve to be recognized for their contributions to this story: DeeAnn Naajar was generous with her time, Karen Olson for background information, Sarah Deweese Lewendowski for contact numbers and Jim Thompson for being around long enough to remember the zoo. Thank you for showing once again what makes Bemidji a great place to live; caring and sharing with family, friends and neighbors.