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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Celebrate Julgransfest in Kingsburg

Oct 24, 2019 11:00AM ● By Enjoy Magazine

A Christmas Tree Party

November 2019
Story by Natalie Caudle

FLANKING HIGHWAY 99  in the heart of the Central Valley is a Scandinavian town resembling the pages of a children’s fable, with the culinary flavors, architectural design and friendly hospitality of a Swedish fairytale. 

Kingsburg was settled in 1874 by two Swedish farmers in an effort to grow wheat in the San Joaquin Valley. The town’s name underwent a few changes, beginning as Wheatville, changing to Kings River Switch and later settling on Kingsburg. The name and city became official in 1908. Swedish immigrants heard of the hamlet and settled in the town, giving Kingsburg its Swedish roots and nickname, Little Sweden. The population and demographics of Kingsburg have changed over the last century, but the charm and heritage upon which the city was founded continue to emulate the beauty and hospitality of a Swedish village. 

Downtown Kingsburg boasts a unique design and Northern European style. The renowned teapot-painted water tower and bright orange Dala horse add to the quaint atmosphere of the city. In keeping with the Swedish ancestry, Kingsburg hosts festivals and events throughout the year. As autumn gives way to winter, citizens welcome the festivities of the holidays with proper fanfare. 

Traditionally, on the fourth Friday in November, Kingsburg transforms into a storybook Christmas village full of wonder and magic. The holiday season kicks off with Julgransfest (pronounced yule-gran-fest), a festival that began more than 30 years ago.

Julgransfest, meaning “Christmas tree party,” began in 1986 by June Hess, a Kingsburg native, and Florene Jacobsen. Hess owns Svensk Boutik and Jacobsen is the former owner of Jacobsen Hardware. The frenzy of Christmas hadn’t yet reached the level of today’s proportions, leaving more to be desired with the rush of Black Friday shopping. Hess and Jacobsen attributed the low turnout to the town’s delayed holiday spirit and felt mid-December was too late to dress the town in Christmas cheer. Hess and Jacobsen decided to take the festivity making into their own hands. The plan was simple: The women would sing carols as they walked to the Christmas tree lighting in Memorial Park. The inaugural event shocked Hess and Jacobsen, as many people had heard about the caroling and turned out to kick off the holiday season in melodic style. 

Despite the festival beginning as an effort to boost Black Friday sales, the Hallmark-esque charm of welcoming Christmas quickly gained a following. In honor of Kingsburg’s cultural history, Hess and Jacobsen decided to bring a Swedish component to Julgransfest, and in the following years incorporated Swedish dances and music. 

Children from 1 to 91 are encouraged to usher in the Christmas season. A prior knowledge of Swedish dances is unnecessary in order to try a jig and kick up your wooden shoes. Trained dancers assist participants and lead the choreography around the Christmas tree. Amanda Manuzak, whose grandmother emigrated from Sweden, leads festival goers in the traditional dances, modeling easy movements for those with two left feet. 

Today, the event is attended by more than 1,000 people. Charles Dickens carolers lead the promenade to the Christmas tree lighting in Memorial Park. The crowds sing carols and count down in unison for the official lighting of the tree. The masses then follow the Victorian carolers and Swedish-clad dancers in a makeshift parade to Santa’s house beneath the town’s official Christmas tree on Draper Street. Mayor Michelle Roman gives a welcoming speech, Santa waves to joyous cheers and children’s squeals and the dancing begins. Friends and strangers link hands and circle the twinkling tree. Echoes of laughter swirl with festive music filling the crisp night air with undeniable holiday cheer. Complimentary hot cocoa and coffee are served in front of Svensk Boutik, warming tummies and hearts alike. 

Live accordion and fiddle can be heard throughout downtown as shops stay open late to accommodate holiday shoppers. Lights twinkle in sync to the music, old friends dance and children share their Christmas wishes with jolly old St. Nick. Hess greatly enjoys the local tradition: “Our town is a fairyland at Christmas. It is fun to see it through other people’s eyes.” 

While December is quickly filled with frenzied traditions, Julgransfest creates a pause between the holidays, a beat of rest between November and her frantic sister, December. Julgransfest brings simplicity and joy back to the holiday rush – a beautiful tradition in an idyllic setting. •

Kingsburg Chamber of Commerce • (559) 897-1111
Julgransfest: Friday, November 29th at 6pm

 Homegrown in the Valley, Natalie Caudle finds beauty in the mundane and is ever on the hunt for the perfect salsa recipe. A mother of four, this minivan chauffeur is passionate about adoption and strives to perfect the art of balancing grace and grit.