Those twinkling lights and front-lawn Rudolphs may suggest that Christmas is already here.

But at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church in South Philadelphia, the holy season of Advent comes first, ushered in by St. Lucy and her candlebearers lighting up December's gloom.

For 71 years, this historic church on Columbus Boulevard has celebrated the birth of Christ and the triumph of light over darkness with a series of luminous, centuries-old services called Lucia Fest.

Mostly sung, in Swedish and English, and repeated eight times over three days, each service is capped by the arrival of a young Sankta Lucia. Entering the dimly lit sanctuary wearing a crown of burning candles and carrying a tray of Scandinavian sweet cakes, she sings of the saint as a "bright mirage" who "lights up the winter's night with her bright spirit."

At the altar, dozens of white-robed children holding candles sing back to her: "Sanktaaa Luciaaaaa."

Turning dozens of children into angels and saints takes some work, however. For this year's Lucia Fest, starting Friday evening and continuing through the weekend, the church community gathered Sunday for an afternoon of final dress rehearsals.

"It looks as if we need to wash some faces," said Jeannette Woehr, the church historian, as she spied Tait Mott, 6, coming through the door.

Tait wiped at the smudges, the remnants of earlier play. "It's face paint," he explained.

St. Lucy was a Sicilian teenager whose pagan fiance murdered her in 303 when she became a Christian and vowed celibacy. According to legend, light beamed from her wounds.

Her cult migrated north as Christianity spread, and the nature-worshiping pagans of Scandinavia were charmed to discover that her name meant "light" and that her feast day (Dec. 13) matched their winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

"So there's also a bit of the pagan to all this, translated into a Christian context," said the Rev. D. Joy Segal, the church's rector.

Founded as a Swedish Lutheran congregation in 1698, Old Swedes' became Episcopalian in 1845. The modest brick structure, opened in 1700, is the oldest church building in Pennsylvania and among the oldest in the nation.

The Lucia services, which last about 40 minutes, begin with actors in traditional costumes portraying a Swedish family preparing for Christmas: They sing, make gifts and greet guests.

Soon they are visited by the little red-clad tomtes - mischievous sprites played by preschoolers - who stamp their feet as they scamper up the aisle singing "Midnatt rader, tyst det ar i husen . . ." ("Midnight hour, quiet in the houses . . .").

Lucia Fest is a family tradition for many of these youngsters, who start out as tomtes, then graduate to "star boys" or "candle girls" as their parents and grandparents did. A few are fourth-generation participants.

The starring role, however, belongs to the candle-crowned Lucy. To win it, a girl must be about 15 and have spent at least eight years in the Lucia Fests.

"I've been doing it since I was 3," said Kirsten Seagers of West Chester. "I started as tomte, then I was a coffee girl, then a candle girl. Now I'm a Lucy - something I always wanted to be."

Four girls will play Lucy this year. "It's sort of a thank-you," said Emily Oakes of West Chester.

Shortly before dress rehearsal began, Seagers, Oakes, and the other Lucys - Hayleigh Allen of Jamison and Dina DiMedio of Medford - went to the vestibule to be fitted for the crown: a brass band containing seven holders for candles and wreathed in dark green boxwood.

At the performances, marshals stand by with buckets containing wet towels. If any flame goes awry, they activate clickers that signal "extinguish all candles" and rush towels to the problem.

Using real candles is "a lovely risk," said Paul Fejko, the parish organist and music director. "And theater is all about risk."

No one has been burned in the long history of the church's festival, but the lit candles always make for a few tense moments.

"Hands out," a woman whispered to one of the candle girls as she started up the aisle. "Hold up," she whispered to another who was following too close.

"Sanktaaa Luciaaaaa," they sang, wreathed in golden light.

Seagers, the Lucy for this rehearsal, stood in the vestibule holding the tray of cakes she would bring to the altar.

"All set?" asked volunteer Darryl Hummel as the last of the candle girls moved up the center aisle.

Seagers nodded. Hummel struck a match.

Moments later the sanctuary doors swung open. St. Lucy, crowned in a heavenly light, stepped into the darkness, singing of Christmas to come.

If You Go

Lucia Fest services start 6 and 8 p.m. Friday and at 2, 3:30 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for children under 12. Seating is limited. Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church is on Columbus Boulevard between Christian Street and Washington Avenue. Parking is free. For more information, call 215-389-1513 or visit www.old-swedes.orgEndText