Full of spirit

Photo courtesy of Slektsdata.no A traditional Syttende Mai barnetog in Sandefjord, Norway, in 1956.

Passing down the tradition of Norwegian Constitution Day through the generations

By Larrie Wanberg

Grand Forks, N.D.

I stood on Karl Johans gate in Oslo on May 17, 1958, amazed at the endless stream of school children, in bright bunader (national costumes), briskly waving small Norwegian flags, and singing national songs.

This day was indelibly imprinted in my memory. National pride, so strong, so full of spirit, was coming from the genuine energy of young children.

As a Fulbright student studying at the University of Oslo, I joined a small group of American students who had a reserved spot near the palace where, with a telephoto camera lens, I could zoom in on the figure of His Majesty King Olav V standing on the balcony with HM Queen Martha, waving to the children for his first May 17th as King.

Last week, I refreshed these memorable moments by reviewing old 8mm films that I took at the 17th of May over 50 years ago, which were digitally transferred to DVDs to preserve them. Among these old films, which I had taken shortly after beginning my studies in September 1957, was a somber funeral procession of revered King Haakon VII, the first king of Norway since the dissolution from Sweden in 1905.

In 1957 – 1958, I studied children residential treatment centers in rural Norway. My project was to use a camera as a tool to progressively document self-portrait images of the children themselves to help build self-esteem, motivation and confidence to re-join their peers in regular classrooms.

As my studies were ending in May, I realized while watching the children’s parade that my goal should have been to picture a group of these children marching in the 17th of May celebration – perhaps a few moments in the spirit of the parade could surpass months of residential care for youth preparing to re-enter day-to-day living.

I know for me, it was a profound experience to see children as the focus of National pride and freedom, as compared to my home country where military parades and memorial honors for patriots are the vanguards of parades, spanning from Memorial Day, the 4th of July, to Veterans Day.

Growing up in a small, rural North Dakota town, the Norwegian influence from immigrant times was still very strong. My parents spoke Norwegian as their first language, but always communicated in English at home.

Throughout North Dakota, the 17th of May event was celebrated by civic organizations, Lutheran churches, lags, cultural groups like Son of Norway, and regional get-togethers. The style of celebration generally involved Norwegian food specialties, folk or national music, and a speaker about history and culture of native Norway. The attraction of 17th of May in my childhood memory was more on the senior population, as few children had “costumes” and were generally unfamiliar with folk dancing or folk games and activities.

The church contributed to language transfer when youth in immigrant families were confirmed in Norwegian. When English became universal in hymns and activities, the local language dialects were frozen in time and can still be heard in the original form from 100 – 125 years ago in some rural senior centers.

Last week, I visited with some elderly citizens who were raised in Norwegian culture, as first-generation immigrants, and we compared memories of Norway’s Constitution Day. They expressed a fondness for the excitement of second-hand stories passed down, and expressed a “missing piece” in their heritage by not “being there” first-hand.

In the days following, I made a bold decision – to re-visit a memorable day in my life and to share it with my nine grandchildren and their spouses as a family tour to Norway in 2014 for the bicentennial celebration of Norway’s Constitution Day.

The year of 1958 was a significant one for me: a Fulbright scholarship, visiting farms where my great-grandparents originated, getting engaged in June with a Norwegian nursing student from Voss who became a “Fulbrighter” to America in August and we married in December.

In 2014, our quest will be to retrace ancestral roots of great, great grandparents and especially their Norwegian grandmother, who died in an accident in 1975 before any personal memories by her descendents were possible.

A “lens” from old family photographs and historical documents “comes alive” in a preserved way when standing in the places in Norway where a large part of one’s family identity is culturally anchored.

The Bicentennial in 2014 will be Norway’s largest celebration in decades. For me, I’ll reconnect with one of the memorable moments in my lifetime along with those who stand there with me.

A recurring dream could materialize that my four great-grandchildren might march in the Syttende Mai parade with their Norwegian cousins – what a legacy to dream about or make happen.

This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.