Scandi-Kiwis celebrate Syttende Mai

The promise of tillable land lured Norwegians to New Zealand; generations later their descendants honor their culture and their struggles—with flags and kransekake

Photo: Kristin Bervig Valentine From Norway to New Zealand, nothing says Syttende Mai like kransekake.

Photo: Kristin Bervig Valentine
From Norway to New Zealand, nothing says Syttende Mai like kransekake.

Kristin Bervig Valentine
Arizona State University

The following article was adapted from the author’s “Norwegian Folk Festivals in New Zealand: A Norwegian-American in New Zealand” published in Arizona State University’s Emeritus College journal Emeritus Voices 14 (2014), pp. 74-87, available at

In 1997 I was invited to New Zealand to teach at Massey University in Palmerston North for a semester. When I located this city on a map of New Zealand’s North Island, I saw, nearby, the towns of Norsewood and Dannevirke, whose names indicated a Scandinavian origin. In extended fieldwork visits to New Zealand (1997-2014) I went to these towns to learn more about what it means to be a Scandinavian-New Zealander, or, as they’ve nicknamed themselves “Scandi-Kiwis.”

What Brought the Scandinavians to New Zealand?
The majority of Scandinavians who migrated to New Zealand did so in the 1870s. Immigration records from those years indicate that about 50% were Danish, 25% Swedish, and 25% Norwegian. The master narrative of their immigration has a fairly consistent plot line. It goes like this:

In the 1870s, New Zealand was a colony of the British Empire. Its English governors wished to build roads on the North Island but were faced by dense undergrowth called “the bush.” Trails had been created there by the indigenous Maori, but were too narrow for the European vehicles that were needed to answer settlers’ ambitions to open up new territory for cultivation and transport.

Some English New Zealanders had been to Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they noted the ability of the Scandinavian immigrants to clear the land of trees in order to make roads and build homesteads. Thus, they reasoned, if people from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden could be persuaded to emigrate to New Zealand, based on promises of boat passage and tillable land, they could be required, in exchange, to cut down the dense bush to form roads and homesteads. The 1870s in Scandinavia were times of great hardships, so the promise of land, and work, even though it be a long way from home, was heeded. They packed whatever belongings would fit into trunks, colorfully decorated with traditional rosemaling designs, and headed out. Most would never return.

What the English governors didn’t tell the Scandinavians, however, was that the bush they were brought to New Zealand to cut down was as luxuriant as any tropical jungle. Having taken the government up on their offer to migrate to New Zealand, and having completed the months-long sea voyage, the immigrants had, figuratively, burned their boats and could not return to Scandinavia. Thus, in spite of the difficulty of cutting down the bush, farming in an unfamiliar temperate climate, fighting wild fires, and treating illnesses far from medical help, these ancestors persevered. Through their sacrifices and efforts, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now living in relative prosperity in and around the largely Scandinavian settlements of Palmerston North, Norsewood, Dannevirke, and Ekatahuna (formerly named Mellemskov meaning “middle of the bush”).

The original bush is now gone. The hillsides, once covered with dense foliage, are as bare of vegetation these days as thousands of sheep can keep them. Dairy farms and ranches, in neatly divided holdings, now fill these valleys.

Syttende Mai in Palmerston North
Syttende Mai is celebrated almost everywhere people with Norwegian heritage live, and New Zealand is no exception. The Palmerston North celebrations are held in a house built in 1892 by Norwegian immigrant Jacob Nannestad. Each year that I was there in May, I helped the organizers decorate the rooms with swags of small paper Norwegian flags, a map of Norway, and a smørgåsbord table with a marzipan kransekake as a centerpiece.

I’m told a wedding kransekake can foretell how many children the couple would have. That number would be determined by how far down in the graduated rings the knife went. At one wedding, as the blindfolded bride and groom started their cut into the kransekake, the bride’s mother-in-law reached in and pushed the bride and groom’s hands down to ensure more grandchildren.

As he started the festivities, Johan Bonnevie, representing the Scandinavian Society of Manawatu, welcomed the audience first in Maori, as is the custom in New Zealand, then in English. As he does each year, Johan presented a lesson on the origin of the Norwegian constitution, and then read the Constitution delegates’ statement that the Norwegian Constitution would be from this date onward “binding and forever until the mountains fall down.” Each year, a proclamation from the Norwegian monarchy is read aloud and we toast the Royals with our glasses of wine.
The traditional Syttende Mai parade is held in Norsewood. The focus is on children. We all chuckled when one of our group told us about a spectator at a Syttende Mai parade in Oslo who asked a bystander, “Where do all these children come from?” And the answer: “Well, the winter nights are mighty long in Norway.”

Why do people attend Syttende Mai Celebrations? The reasons are related to pride in their heritage. Here are samples of the answers I got from Scandi-Kiwis:

“My grandparents came to New Zealand from Norway in 1873. Their fathers had told them, ‘You are welcome to stay but I have no land to divide among you. There is nothing here for you.’ When they heard about a ‘paradise’ called New Zealand, they left Norway and never went back. I come to show appreciation for their struggles.”

Other comments were: “It is important to honor our ancestors. This is one time we can honor them.” “I’m here because of the tradition,” and “Here we meet people with a similar history.” A woman with Swedish heritage told me, “Here in New Zealand, the Scandi clubs are mostly Norwegians and Danes. If there was a Swedish National Holiday, we’d celebrate that, but there isn’t. I heard that the Swedish government is going to start one because they are jealous of all the attention that Norway gets from its national day.”

Born in Norway, Johan and Sigge Bonnevie both told me, “Celebrating Syttende Mai is like a birthday party or Christmas Eve in Norway. We enjoyed preparing for it; it was a part of our childhood.” And, for Johan, this day had several layers of meaning. He explained that one of his ancestors was a part of the first government cabinet in November of 1814. He said: “I associate Syttende Mai with festivities and color, and spring and sun and new beginnings. Around the 17th of May, we had ‘youth days’ with no school.” And, Sigge added laughing, “lots and lots of ice cream.”

Norwegian Culture
While the memories of connections to Scandinavia may be less detailed as the past recedes, the popularity of events of collective memory remains. People born and raised in New Zealand’s Norsewood and Dannevirke, and in Scandinavian communities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, often return to these communities for celebrations. Stories of brave ancestors connect us to our present identities and show us our special place within the larger, more amorphous society of the nation.

As we sing “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” our minds are simultaneously on our ancestral land and the land where we now have our roots. Norwegian-Americans, like Scandi-Kiwis, do not try to simulate the cultures of the Old Countries. Our ancestors needed, and we descendants want, to belong to the newer cultures while preserving our cultural heritages. As all cultures do, we choose which key values, attitudes, and symbols of our ancestors we want to pass on to our children.

This article originally appeared in the June 5, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.