Ballard celebrates its 120th year of Syttende Mai

This year’s 120th Ballard celebration of the 17th of May, commonly known as “Syttende Mai,” Norway’s Constitution Day, will be a mix of Norwegian and American Culture.

The Parade in Ballard 2008. Photo by Steve Shay.

By Allison Espiritu –

The community, which has historically had a high population of Norwegians, has been celebrating the Syttende Mai since 1889. Beginning at the Norway Center off of Elliot Street followed by Seattle Center, the celebration has been rightfully in Ballard since the late 1980’s when the Leif Erikson Lodge was built in 1986.

The festival is sponsored by the Norwegian 17th of May Committee, an independent, non-profit organization founded to commemorate Norway’s Norwegian Constitution Day. It is a celebration of the day in 1814 when Norway’s constitution was signed in the town of Eidsvoll, Norway.

“The 17th of May was the independence that Norway got from Sweden,” Jim Vatn, parade chairman for the past 30 years said. “It’s like our Fourth of July. It’s really a celebration of freedom. The Norwegians, of course, are very grateful for that.” On the day, there is a parade and festivities. Vatn said it’s always a fun event, especially since the community has expanded and even more people are involved. 

The parade usually has about 100 entries, he said. “The one thing we’ve changed a little is that it’s expanded to more of an American parade as oppose to a mostly Norwegian parade,” Vatn said. “The Norwegian portion is still the first one-third of the parade.” As Norwegian groups, organizations and a number of clubs from each area of Norway march in the parade, viewers should expect bands and drill teams to follow, Vatn said. “That’s one change we’ve made,” Vatn said. “We’ve added a lot of American entries to make a larger parade. Everybody seems to enjoy that because there’s real entertainment value in that.” Vatn said about 5,000 to 6,000 guests watch the parade each year.

“It’s really getting to be a fun, cultural, heritage and educational day,” he said. “The immigration from Norway ceased a number of years ago and the kids and grandkids now really don’t know much about the 17th of May unless their grandparents have told them about it.”Vatn sees the celebration to be a time to educate Ballard’s school-age children about the 17th of May and the culture and that surrounds it.

“Ballard has grown, the demographics have changed and it’s helped the event to become bigger and better,” Vatn said. “With diversity, everyone has their own culture as well and now these people are participating and understanding ours as well. The more we understand each other’s culture and diversity the better off it is.”

This year, the festival is honored to have Wegger Chr. Strommen, Ambassador for Norway to the United States, as its grand marshal and luncheon speaker.

The celebration is also recognizing the 100th anniversary of the University of Washington’s Scandinavian Studies, where Dr. Terje Lieren, professor in Norwegian studies and chair of the Department of Scandinavia Studies will be their honorary marshal.

“The one thing we also have this year is a large men’s choir from Norway,” Vatn said. The Hellvik Mannskor will be performing at Bergen Place and will also be in attendance at the luncheon.

Vatn, who was also born and raised in Ballard, will be stepping down as the parade chairman after witnessing how the festivities have evolved during the past 30 years. “I’ve been in Seattle and Ballard all my life and have been involved in a lot of civic activities,” he said. “I’m probably going to be a consultant since it’s my last year, being so close to Ballard I’m sure I’ll be involved with it somehow. It’s a great event and our family and neighbors participate too.” 

Vatn said it takes a lot of help and people to make the celebration a success. “We have younger people we have to educate and help along,” Vatn said. “We have a good group, great committee and it’s a great place to be on the 17th of May. There’s flags flying, kids, music, drink and food, it’s just a great day to be in Ballard.”

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