The History We Keep (and what we let go)

The following essay is by Emily Gray, a managing editor for Exponent II. We invite you to submit to our upcoming issue about family history and legacy.

A few months ago, my mom gave me the family Bible. It is not the giant tome you might imagine, the kind of object that dominates a shelf and contains copious blank pages for the keeping of records of births and deaths. It is a tiny New Testament, smaller than my hand, bound in lightly embossed leather, a fragile object passed down from mother to daughter in my matrilineal line since my ancestors first carried it across an ocean and a continent from Scandinavia to Salt Lake City in the late 1800s. 

They passed down the book, but not the Swedish language necessary to read it. Anxious to assimilate their families to the English of their newly-chosen home and people, they let go of the mother tongue but kept the small volume of scripture that linked them to the place of their ancestry, long past the time that any member of the family could read it. 

Every year on December 13th, we honor our Swedish ancestry by celebrating St. Lucia day. We make gingery Pepparkakor cookies and sweet saffron Lussekater buns; my daughter puts on a white dress tied with a red sash and we light candles in a crown on her head, singing the traditional Lucia Carol with Swedish words we don’t understand while wax drips into her hair. 

The Lucia tradition is a paradox. The independent and strong-minded Swedes held on to Saint Lucia long after Martin Luther’s Reformation supposedly removed all the saints from Christian practice in Scandinavia. It is hard to say why Lucia, of all saints, had such staying power; the early Christian martyr from the Mediterranean coast of southern Italy surely had little in common with the hearty farmers of the northern climates and no understanding of their long, dark, cold winters. But the people of Sweden loved her, so over the objections of Lutheran theologians they continued to honor her, a relic of their ancestral religion brought forward into the new in the same way that my ancestors carried their small copy of the Swedish New Testament along with a new English Book of Mormon into their new life in the American Zion. 

I wonder what my daughter will take of her heritage forward into the future she is building for herself. What will she hold on to? What will she let go of? We gave her a pioneer name and told her the stories of all her heroic Mormon ancestors. It looks like she may choose to lay aside the high-demand religion they bequeathed us, but will she still connect in some way with their courage and the convictions that led them to make great sacrifices for what felt right and true? If she chooses to have a daughter, will she dress her as St. Lucia and teach her to make Pepparkakor? Or will she transform these stories and traditions, as we have, into practices that make sense to her in a life we cannot yet imagine?

The spring issue of Exponent II invites us to think about these kinds of questions as we ponder what family history and heritage means to each of us. How have you made the names on a four generation genealogy chart come alive to you? How have you dealt with difficult stories and complicated relationships in the history of your family? How have you created traditions that link past generations to the future? What kind of an ancestor are you yourself going to become? Please send essays of 700-2400 words to exponentiieditor AT gmail DOT com. Submission deadline: January 4, 2021. We look forward to hearing your stories. 


  1. I celebrate Santa Lucia but am much closer to the home country– my mother was born in Norway. As for why they kept Lucia day, there are a couple of reasons.

    I read in a book that it used to be that there was a goblin creature that would come down your chimney and do….something?…if you had not finished baking all 7 types of cookies by the 13th, so to replace it the church instituted Lucia day. This is my least favorite explanation, funny though it is. (My mother still tries to bake 7 types of cookies before that day. The cookies are a type that will last in a tin for….possibly forever.)

    Here is what I really think is the reason it sticks around: In the old calender, the 13th was the longest night, winter solstace. The song for Santa Lucia talks about the darkness, St Lucia rising up, and promising that the sun will return again. In those latitudes, you can really wonder if you’ll ever see the sun again.

    St Lucia is known, among other things, for bringing food to the Christians hiding from persecution in the tunnels under the city. In order to be able to carry more in her arms, she put her candles on her head. I imagine hiding in the pitch black tunnels, hungry and lonely, and seeing a young woman with a crown of light coming out of the darkness with food and drink. In a land of 3 hours of grey winter daylight, that image is surely a compeling one.

    So we sing on the day that used to be the longest night that though the dark is everywhere, Santa Lucia has shown up on our doorstep and proclaimed that the light will return, and we will see sunrise again. She goes through the house singing her song and casting light into all the corners. The next day the light slowly starts to come back.

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