Come what may: US 17th of May observances in wartime
Judith Gabriel Vinje
May 17, 1914, was a special occasion, for it marked the centenary of the Norwegian Constitution ratified at Eidsvoll.
Norwegian Americans celebrated the event in a bigger way than usual. Organizations had collected a centennial fund—mindegave—to be presented to the people of Norway as an expression of gratitude for their heritage. Cities and towns with Norwegian populations staged festivals, some of which lasted two or three days.
With May 17 falling on a Sunday, it was a long, festive weekend with the displaying of thousands of Norwegian flags, hundreds of speeches, children’s parades, dramatic performances, and special church services.
Church services also took place in Oslo on the morning of the 17th. Many of them ironically celebrated the “century of peace” and several thousand Norwegian Americans had returned to Norway for the centenary, according to Carl H. Chrislock, author of Ethnicity Challenged: The Upper Midwest Norwegian-American Experience in World War I.
The capital city’s downtown parade included more than 30,000 children, as well as a special section of about 3,000 visiting Norwegian Americans, led by a band from Luther College. Many Norwegian Americans remained in Norway, celebrating July 4th at Frogner Park, where a statue of Abraham Lincoln was unveiled and a special pavilion saluted “emigrated Norway” in a Jubilee Exposition.
The spark that ignited World War I—the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo—took place on June 28, but peace in Europe didn’t seem threatened until the end of July. At that point, sailing schedules were halted, and thousands of Americans were stranded in Norway, unable to leave until October, according to Chrislock.
By then, the armies of World War I were already slaughtering each other. Although the United States didn’t enter the fray until 1917, Norwegian Americans felt its impact almost as soon as they returned home, eager to share their glowing reports of a Norway that was thriving.
Back in the U.S., World War I complicated many aspects of Norwegian-American identity. Intolerance of “outsiders” was on the rise throughout America, and all hyphenated identities were being challenged, casting a shadow on ethnic festivities such as Syttende Mai.
When the U.S. became involved in war, American observances of May 17 became more restrained than in previous years, but Norwegian Americans were determined to observe their national day. On May 18, 1914, Nordisk Tidende (Norway Times) commented on the holiday observances in New York: “Come what may—we Norwegians insist on celebrating our 17th of May… so far as the world’s metropolis is concerned, there were as many festivals yesterday as ever.”
There was a new theme to the day, however, as Norwegian Americans took the occasion to affirm their loyalty to the United States. An article in the May 24, 1917, issue of Nordisk Tidende quoted a New York rally speaker, John A. Gade, reminding the country of Norwegian-American performance in the Civil War.
Throughout the rest of the war, Norwegian-American organizations used 17th of May festivities to proclaim their support for the war effort and to reaffirm their loyalty as Americans. The Sons of Norway donated funds to buy three field ambulances for the Norwegian army.
At the same time, the organization protested the Iowa edict forbidding the use of Norwegian—or any other language except English—within the state, as an extreme example of the xenophobia sweeping the country.
While many 17th of May celebrations were carried on as before, some were more muted in tone, and a few groups even cancelled their rallies entirely. Nearly all used the occasion to affirm their support of the war effort.
One complicating factor was that while most Americans had previously accepted the Scandinavian countries’ neutrality, after the U.S. entered the war, this non-involvement came to be regarded negatively.
Norwegian Americans sought to clarify the picture. Nordisk Tidende condemned Germany in a front page editorial Feb. 15, 1917, and in its April 19, 1917, issue, the paper took issue with the New York Evening News for berating Norway for “tolerating” German activities. Actually, as Chrislock notes, Norway deeply resented the loss of life caused by German submarine warfare, and Norway’s neutrality had been based on the fact that it was so close to Germany.
The war’s end inspired great joy throughout America, but it left its mark on immigrants, dampening the Norwegian-American experience and making even the most loyal “hyphenates” uneasy. The Lutheran Church was forced to defend itself because of Martin Luther’s German origins. In some states, Norwegians had been forced to register as aliens, the speaking of the mother tongue was banned or at least muted, and there were countless assaults on immigrant identity and self-respect.
In the postwar years, there was a revival of the many Norwegian organizations that had been suspended during the war. In an interview published in Nordisk Tidende on July 17, 1919, Nordmannsforbundet’s president E. G. Gade said he hoped that with the war over, chapters of his organization would be reactivated. Norwegian-American ethnicity—although in a somewhat Americanized form—survived the war, although never again would the Norwegian language be a treasured legacy to pass on to the younger generations.
“The re-emergence of demonstrative 17th of May celebrations was another sign of the times,” Chrislock points out, noting that the size of the New York festivities was larger even than that of the centenary year, 1914.
Fortunately, May 17th continues to be celebrated throughout the land, in times of peace and in times of war. It serves as a rallying point for children and grandchildren of Norwegian immigrants, affording them an opportunity to celebrate their family’s ancestral identity and loyalty.
This article originally appeared in the May 5, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.