Kathryn Wieber has been preparing for the role of Lucia for more than a decade, and next week the Conard High School senior will have the chance as Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford celebrates the commencement of the Christmas season with the annual St. Lucia Festival.
"Kathryn has been in the Lucia Festival every year since she was 3 or 4. It's a big thing and she is truly honored to be Lucia," said Claudia Wieber of West Hartford, Kathryn's mom.
Many criticize the commercialization of the holidays, but the celebration of St. Lucia is anything but commercial. This is the 99th year that Emanuel Lutheran has held the festival, and it is replete with the same traditions, and the same songs sung in Swedish, by candlelight, as it was nearly a century ago.
Emanuel Lutheran dates back to 1889, and it is still known as "the Swedish church" despite today's diverse congregation. St. Lucia Day (pronounced, Santa Lou-see-ah) is an important element of the church's ritual.
There are many stories and folklore traditions surrounding Lucia, but a quick summary is that Lucia was an Italian princess who became a Christian and used her dowry to go out under the darkness of night to deliver clothing and food to other Christians who were forced into hiding. The Vikings, traveling to Italy for trade purposes, brought Lucia's story back to Scandinavia. St. Lucia Day, also known as the Festival of Light, is still celebrated in Sweden on Dec. 13. The oldest girl in the family has the honor of being Lucia and dresses up in a white robe with a red sash, wears a wreath of lingonberry leaves adorned with seven candles on her head, and serves her family members Lusselkatter, a Swedish bun.
At Emanuel Lutheran, the children of the congregation, ranging from kindergartners through high school seniors, dress in Scandanavian costumes to perform a traditional St. Lucia Pageant, singing holiday songs in Swedish by candlelight. This year there are 31 kids in the pageant, and 11 of them are from West Hartford.
Kathryn started off as a Tomtar (Swedish "elves," who may be either helpful or mischievous, and are said to live in the floorboards of homes), and progressed to a Swedish child and then a Lucia attendant before learning last year that she would be the next Lucia.
Boys in the festival also begin as Tomtar, and then move on to roles as Baker Boys (symbolizing food), and Star Boys/Lantern Boys (symbolizing the triumph of light through darkness). Toby Holleretz, a Conard sophomore, is this year's Star Boy.
Other West Hartford participants include Lindsay Hopper (Lucia Attendant), Maria Flanders (Lucia Attendant), Lily Holleretz (Lucia Attendant), Molly Swanson (Lucia Attendant), Brynn Murphy (Swedish Girl), Megan Murphy (Swedish Girl), Mary Holleretz (Swedish Girl), Brendan Murphy (Tomtar), and Matt Kloss (Baker Boy).
"It's sort of like a hierarchy. Lucia is the one thing all the girls are trying to get to," Kathryn said of the lead role, which is typically filled by a high school senior. Some years there are two Lucias and they split the shows, but this year she is the only one.
Since all of the songs are sung in Swedish, Kathryn has had to spend considerable time preparing for the festival, practicing an hour or two each Sunday after church since early September.
"Once you get to high school you know the songs pretty well, but it takes lots of practice – especially the Swedish pronunciation," she said.
She's had some help from someone who speaks Swedish, to be sure she gets it right, since correct pronunciation is very important to the native Swedish speakers in the congregation.
Some of the songs are traditional Christmas carols such as "O Holy Night" and "Silent Night," sung in Swedish, but others are unfamiliar.
This year's Lucia Festival has the involvement of another Wieber. Kristin, Claudia and Ken Wieber's oldest daughter who is a senior at UConn, is director. Kristin was Lucia when she was a high school senior, and Claudia said she loved the show so much that she decided to come back and direct it.
Kathryn said it's been "very fun" working with her sister, and even though they occasionally get on each other's nerves, the overall experience has been great.
The St. Lucia Festival will be held next Friday, Dec. 7, at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Swedish inspired crafts and refreshments are available after each performance.
For the cast members, the time in between the performances is another tradition – the cast dinner where the current Lucia reads aloud a letter written to her from by the previous year's Lucia.
"It's a really cool tradition. The cast becomes very close and it has a special place in everyone's heart," said Kathryn.
"It's a really nice, non-commercial way to start the Christmas season," Claudia said.
Performances will be held at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford (311 Capitol Avenue, www.emanuelhartford.org). Tickets can be purchased at the door: $5 for adults and $2 for children. A portion of the ticket sales will be donated to Hands on Hartford 's MANNA food pantry program.
Free parking is available behind the church via Hungerford Street and in the large state lot a half-block to the east on the corner of Capitol and Oak Streets, across from the Legislative Office Building.