Syttende Mai, from Oslo to L.A.
Memories of past holidays mix with celebrations still occurring in Norwegian enclaves
Sixty years ago on a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Oslo, I became immersed face-to-face in my ancestral heritage as a Norwegian American, which culminated when standing on the curb of Karl Johans gate in Oslo to participate in the 17th of May celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day.
I experienced the massive parade of young children waving Norwegian flags, the school bands, the youth graduating from Gymnas (known as Russ) who marched wearing special colored caps, crowds of people in distinctive colorful national costumes representing their local communities, and then the array of picnic-type foods that are served to feed a full day of celebration.
The event has marked a milestone memory in my life that I have since relived several times in Norway and many times over six decades across the broad landscape of America. I have realized over the years how widespread and deeply held traditions of the 17th of May are embodied in celebrations in both large metropolitan cities in the U.S and in small towns scattered across the Midwest and coastal regions in the West.
I contacted friends, family, and acquaintances of other Norwegian Americans to get their reflections on the 17th of May celebrations in their lives, while also researching places where Nordic traditions are still prominent events.
I first talked with my Norwegian-born friend from college days, Arne Brekke (age 90 this year), who came to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, in 1947.
“My earliest memories of May 17,” he said, “are from grade school in Flåm… games on the school playground… a march to Flåm church… adults and children dressed in national costumes and carrying Norwegian flags.”
He continued, “During the war, 1940-45, celebrations of our Constitution Day were not allowed, but it was celebrated all the more fervently when the war was over.” He forecasted that with today’s age of telecommunication and the ease of jet travel to visit Norway, the annual celebrations will last for many more generations. (For a short video on Arne’s life philosophy, visit www.DakotaHeritageInstitute.com.)
Celebrations on May 17th are well-rooted in smaller towns throughout our country. For examples, a cross-section list in six states includes Decorah, Iowa; Grand Forks, N.D.; Stoughton, Wis.; Spring Grove, Minn.; Poulsbo, Wash.; Clifton, Texas; and San Pedro, Calif.
The Norwegian Seamen’s Church in San Pedro near Los Angeles will host an annual traditional celebration on May 17 with speeches, a block parade, games, activities, and plenty of food, including servings of Norwegian hot dogs, marzipan cake, and ice cream cones for the children.
Patricia Zanuck, a Norwegian-born activities-blog writer who has lived most of her life in the United States, describes her participation in May 17th celebrations with her husband and two school-age sons in the L.A. area. They spend summers as a family in Norway and her sons, when they are in school, keep in touch with the grandparents in Oslo via Facetime on cell phones.
“This year on Sunday May 21, there will be a larger celebration at Nansen Field (a soccer field) in Rolling Hills Estates that begins with a church service, patriotic speeches, and a parade, music, foods that include Norwegian-style hot dogs, Solo soft drink, waffles among other things, and traditional games for kids,” Zanuck explains.
“What I like best about these celebrations is that they are casual, laid-back events and very family friendly. Norwegian pride truly comes out on these days.”
When her 13-year-old son was asked how he feels about going to 17th of May celebrations, he answered, “The celebrations make me feel special that I’m Norwegian.”
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.