When Anker Nielsen stepped through the doors of Emanuel Danish Lutheran Church on a recent evening, he was greeted by a sight he had not seen since he moved to the United States in 1960.
Twenty young girls, all dressed in white and holding candles, marched solemnly through the church, singing "Santa Lucia" a cappella.
The Santa Lucia procession, a popular event in Scandinavian churches but rarely enacted in Southern California, is one of several Danish Christmas customs observed this holiday season by congregants of the Yorba Linda church.
Paying homage to Lucia, an Italian saint who refused to renounce her faith to save her life, is clearly a religious celebration. But the members of the church say that practicing their religion is only part of the reason they come here.
"This place helps keep our culture alive in America," said Nielsen, 73, who lives in Torrance.
The congregation, which moved to Yorba Linda in 1995 from Los Angeles, has made the church a focal point for Southern California's far-flung Danish community, drawing worshipers from San Diego, Riverside and Los Angeles counties.
In addition to hearing weekly sermons by Minister Christen Vaever, who says he is one of only two Danish Lutheran pastors in the United States, the members may participate in Danish cultural events year-round.
The church, which has about 450 regular members, organizes a party to commemorate Danish Constitution Day on June 5, for example, and Queen Margrethe's birthday April 16. Several clubs, including one for retired soldiers, grew out of the congregation and use the church as a meeting place.
On most Sundays the church also sponsors a dinner to which it invites prominent Danes as speakers or well-known Danish performers to provide entertainment.
Because of its importance to the Danish expatriate community, the church has been visited by both the queen and crown prince of Denmark, as well as the Danish ambassador to the United States.
To the uninitiated visitor, the church looks like a typical house of worship. But to a Dane, members say, it gives definite clues that it is a Danish Lutheran building.
The architect designed it with a tall, gabled bell tower, a distinguishing feature of Danish country churches, and gave it a red roof and white walls, both common to Danish churches because those are the colors of Denmark's flag.
The interior is also reminiscent of the old country. The birch ceiling was crafted to resemble the hull of a boat, and a large model of a clipper ship is suspended over the sanctuary, paying homage to the nation's seafaring heritage.
"The members just want a few links to the old country, and this is one of the last links," said Magda Vaever, the pastor's wife. "Danes are very good at assimilating, but now and again they feel a little homesick. So they come here, and they can meet other Danes."