Local author, Emily Shipley Olsen, shares how an old family tradition brought new hope during her holiday season.
Traditions abound during the holidays. The rituals are as diverse as the people who celebrate them. Some can seem bizarre to the outside observer. One tradition revolves around hiding a pickle ornament in the Christmas tree and the first child to find it receives an extra gift. Some families of Polish descent hang their trees, ornaments, and all from the ceiling.
Local author, Emily Olsen Shipley, shared her unique family tradition in a submission to “Chicken Soup for the Soul: It’s Beginning to look like Christmas,” published in late 2019. Though the themes change, the Chicken Soup books are a collection of true inspirational stories from ordinary people. Emily’s story appears as one of the 101 stories of holiday love and wonder. The holiday book is “Santa Safe,” meaning the recollections keep the magic alive for younger readers. The book also includes heartwarming stories from Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and New Year, according to Shelby Janner, Ziker Media Publicity Director.
Being of Scandinavian descent, Emily said that her family’s tradition evolved from the celebration of Santa Lucia Day. Celebrated around the world in December, the holiday is especially prevalent in Sweden. Being a first-generation immigrant from Sweden, Emily’s grandfather kept the tradition alive.
Emily, who holds a master’s in English from Cal Poly and teaches rhetoric and writing composition at Cuesta College, said, “I teach the subject more than I actually get to do the practice and so I came up with the Santa Lucia story kind of on a whim.”
The legend tells the story of a young woman named Lucia, who was martyred for her Christian faith. Emily’s family ascribes to the version where the young lady brought provisions to other believers hiding in catacombs. The story goes that she wore a wreath on her head with candles mounted on it. The candlelit wreath served a dual purpose; it not only lit her way in the underground passages but also kept her hands free so she could carry as much as possible to the hiding Christians. Despite the differences in the various versions, they all agree that Lucia was martyred at a young age in Syracuse, Sicily, in the year 304 during the Diocletianic Persecution. However, no one seems to know how the tradition became so popular in Sweden.
The Scandinavian tradition features a procession of young women in white dresses, red sashes and candlelit wreaths on their heads. The girls, and their candle-carrying attendants, handout cookies and saffron buns to the families and congregations honoring Santa Lucia. Emily’s story recounts how each year her family carries on the tradition. The family gathers together on the shortest day of the year. After dinner, the aunts usher the girls into the backroom to prepare for the annual event. The story details how the girls donned the white dresses, red sashes and wreaths with electric candles.
In her story, Emily tells how as each light is turned off in the house, preparing for the bright procession, her thoughts grew darker. Reflecting on the troubles and trials of the previous year, she writes that she understood why the Scandinavians chose the longest, darkest night of the year to celebrate the festival of lights. Her story depicts an impromptu singing of “Silent Night.” At the same time, the family waited in the darkness and how she “pictured the joyous images of this traditional Christmas song and contemplated the alleluias of heavenly beings, the light of pure love, radiant beams and dawns of redeeming grace.”
As the girls started making their way through the room, lit by electric candles, Emily wrote how in that moment, the worries and darkness of the past year sloughed away. She describes how she saw the tradition in a new light and found new joy in the holiday symbols that represent love and sacrifice.
“I understood the intercessory peace brought by St. Lucia, who faced a world more dangerous, more painful than my own,” Emily wrote.
Unfortunately, Emily could not celebrate the festival of lights with her family this year. Considered a high-risk for preterm pregnancy, Emily has been remanded to bedrest at Sierra Vista Hospital since Oct. 3.
“I was at risk for preterm labor and had one complication that put me really close to it, so my doctors took the very conservative measure and said, ‘Into the hospital with you until delivery,” she said.
Despite her three-month stay in the hospital, Emily remains in good spirits. Pregnant with twins — a boy and a girl — she has been waiting patiently to meet her babies. Emily already has the boy’s name picked, Issac Paul, but had not decided on a girl’s name at the writing of this article, though she said that the name Lucia is a contender.
Update: Emily and her husband William are now proud parents of Issac Paul Shipley and Anya Jean Shipley.
Given the ample time she has spent in the hospital this holiday season, Emily has read the other stories found in the book. She said that among her favorites are “The Best Christmas Ever, “Dollhouse” and “The Christmas of My Dreams.”