MERIDEN, Iowa | While Easter is often considered the customary holiday for sunrise worship services to celebrate Christ's resurrection, at least a few local churches meet at dawn on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus' birth.
At Oakdale Evangelical Free Church north of Meriden, the candlelight service begins at 7 a.m. Monday, an hour, if not two hours, later than in Christmases past.
"We used to enter the church in the dark, maybe at 5 a.m.," said Merle Wester, 88, of nearby Cherokee, who recalled attending the Swedish Julotta Christmas service as a child. "They'd have a candle in each window."
Candles also illuminated the tree within the church, prompting Wester's great uncle, August Anderson, to keep his eyes on the tree, making sure it didn't catch fire.
Julotta, the traditional Swedish church service on Christmas morning, is translated this way: "Jul" is Swedish for Christmas; "otta" is Swedish for the time just before dawn.
In Sweden, the holiday rite called for church-goers who lived the greatest distance from the church to start their journey toward church well before dawn. Walking or traveling by sleigh, they carried lanterns and stopped at farmhouses along the way, picking up other Christians on a pilgrimage that culminated in a candlelit service to announce the birth of Jesus.
Founders of the Swedish Free Mission Church Class, which was named Oakdale Evangelical Free Church in 1923, carried the Julotta tradition with them upon settling north of Meriden. There are other churches in the region, in cities such as Albert City and Cherokee, among others, who still celebrate Julotta as well.
Four of the eight children of the late Mabel and Elmer Wester, including Merle Wester, pastor emeritus, plan to take their places at Oakdale Evangelical Free Church on Christmas morning to celebrate Julotta, as they have for years.
"I don't remember going to Julotta by sleigh, but I do remember how cold it was when I got up on Christmas morning because the fire hadn't yet been started," said Lorraine Mortenson, 90, of Cherokee, one of the four surviving Wester children. "And to think, someone had to be at the church that early to get the fire started there."
Another sibling, Evelyn Kludas, 83, of nearby Aurelia, said she recalled the children attending that Christmas service clad in their pajamas. And when they returned home, they always found that Santa Claus had visited their farm.
Jeanette Johnson, 82, who resides north of Meriden, is the fourth Wester child who will attend Julotta on Monday.
Merle Wester and his wife, Eleda Wester, helped keep the Julotta tradition going on another continent as the couple served as missionaries for 43 years in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"The missionaries before us had Swedish backgrounds, although they were from the United States," Eleda Wester said. "They had introduced Julotta before our arrival."
So, for four decades of Christmas celebrations, the Westers joined as members of the congregation arose around 3:30 a.m. each Dec. 25 to the sound of drums.
"People carried kerosene lanterns to church and Merle would always fire up his Coleman pressure lamp to help light the church," she said. Their Julotta service in the Congo often ran from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. and was heavy on Christmas music and Scripture readings announcing the birth of Jesus Christ.
"There were no sleighs there," Eleda quipped.
"Temperatures in the day-time was often around 90 with humidity," Merle Wester added.
After the Julotta service concluded in the Congo, church-goers would carry their lanterns out into rural villages while inviting others to join them for a second service, which commenced at 8 a.m.
At Oakdale Evangelical Free Church, the Julotta service lasts 45 minutes, officiated this year by The Rev. Jonathan Caldwell. Ross Peterson, 33, grandson of the late Dale Wester, said he'll help lead Christmas carols while playing his guitar.
"It's sentimental for me," said Peterson, whose parents, Lloyd and Nancy Peterson, share Julotta traditions from Oakdale (Nancy's home church) and Evangelical Covenant Church (Lloyds' home church) in Albert City, a Buena Vista County community known for its Swedish heritage. "I grew up with this service and I remember seeing a lot of kids here in their pajamas. As a family, we'd open our stocking stuffers after church."
Some years, Peterson said, everyone holds a candle through part of the Julotta service. Other years, there are minimal lights.
This much has changed in the century since Julotta was first celebrated here: Nobody walks to church.
"When my folks first got married, they would have taken the sled or horse-and-buggy," Mortenson said. "I remember sitting in the car going to church, sitting between my mom and dad. We rode five people in the front, five in the back."
Merle Wester smiled while reflecting on Christmas hymns sung in Swedish during Julotta, always a well-attended celebration. He predicted a crowd of 240 for the service this year, which won't quite fill this beautiful church built one decade ago.
"There's not necessarily a message, but more Scripture and hymns," Eleda said. "It's quite a worshipful service."
"As a church family, it's great to get together and put first things first," Ross Peterson concluded. "We celebrate His coming and celebrate His coming again."