Christmas brings families and friends together to share meals, open presents and eat cookies. But for California's Swedish population -- sprinkled throughout the state -- Christmastime brings a sense of community. Susan Valot found out when she stopped by the Swedish Christmas Fair in Los Angeles.
Three generations of Meta Berger's family fret in front of mirrors in a back room at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall in Los Angeles. Santa Claus is already waiting downstairs, but he is not the center of attention here.
The family is celebrating Saint Lucia Day, as part of the annual Swedish Christmas Fair, put on by a local chapter of the Swedish Women's Educational Association, a group for Swedish-speaking women.
"Lucia was a saint from Italy and she brought the light into the darkness of Sweden," Berger said. "So it is the 'bringing of the light' that Lucia symbolizes."
Berger's granddaughters and daughter wear white robes with red sashes around their waists. They add green wreaths on their heads before grabbing their candles and following the chosen "Lucia" downstairs.
A crowd gathers amid booths selling Swedish handmade items and Swedish foods. White Christmas lights line the booths and the darkened room. The girls in white robes follow "Lucia," whose head is adorned with a crown of burning candles, in a procession through the booths. "Lucia" is silent as the girls behind her sing the traditional "Sankta Lucia" song that echoes through Swedish homes and churches every December 13.
A grand-daughter of Sweden-native Meta Berger holds her candle during the Lucia Procession at the Swedish Women's Educational Association's annual Swedish Christmas Fair in Los Angeles this month.
This is the L.A. Swedish Christmas Fair's 34th year, making it one of the older of several Swedish Christmas fairs in California.
"We love Christmas, and there's lots of very, very long traditions, and the reason for the Christmas Fair is to make sure we keep the Swedish culture for our children, grandchildren," Berger said. "I have four singing in this Lucia pageant and who learn all the Swedish songs. It's fun to carry on the traditions."
Berger came to the United States from Stockholm 46 years ago. She said the Christmas fair is a taste of home.
"I think it's the atmosphere, with all the creating in a big hall, a feeling of almost a little town, where everybody can buy things and people walk around. They have bags," Berger said, as she looked over the crowd from above. "They participate in something that is very Swedish. And people are usually very happy when they get here."
There is no Little Stockholm in Southern California. Pockets of Swedes are scattered around California, with concentrations in the Central Valley, San Francisco and L.A.
In Central California, Kingsburg is known as being a Swedish village. The town takes pride in its Swedish heritage and hosts its own Lucia Parade each year.
The Swedish Christmas Fair in Los Angeles includes booths and Swedish crafts, decorations and food.
With the population spread out, Christmas fairs like the one in L.A. act as a hub for the Swedish-American community.
"I get very sentimental when I hear the songs. I get a little teary-eyed for sure," said Jenny Best, a Swede who has been in L.A. for a quarter century and who comes each year to the Swedish Christmas Fair. "It's just childhood, growing up. We did this every year. You can take the Swede out of Sweden, but you can't take the – what is it? – Sweden out of the Swede."
Christmas Fair organizer Anna-Karrin Kight says it's like "home, but not home." She says it's hard to replicate the quiet Lucia scenes that play out across homes in Sweden on the saint's day, December 13.
"When I grew up, my parents took me and my brother and sister to my grandmother's house – grandmother and grandfather," Kight recounted. "Six o'clock in the morning, we unlocked their door and we came in with our white dresses and our candles in our hair and sang Lucia songs for my grandparents. It was the most beautiful thing. It's the most warm and wonderful tradition."
Seventy-one-year-old Maidie Karling, who left Sweden 50 years ago, comes to the Swedish Christmas Fair every year. She calls Christmas her "best holiday." She decks out her house, plays all the Swedish Christmas music and cooks the traditional Swedish smorgasbord for Christmas Eve.
"I pretend that there's snow outside and that it's cold," Karling said. "I just enjoy it in my heart."
For Ingela Sorensson, who will kick off her Christmas Eve by watching a Donald Duck cartoon that's been a Swedish Christmas tradition for decades, the Swedish fairs help preserve her heritage.
"It's very important. I want to keep the traditions alive so my grandkids can keep on doing them, because I'm afraid otherwise it will die," Sorensson said. "And I don't want that."