Syttende Mai from the heart
Minneapolis celebrates the holiday with a feeling of community—and a whole lot of flags
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Norwegian Constitution Day on May 17 has long been a day that I’ve celebrated with friends in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, with its long tradition of good food, music, and a grand parade. It’s something to look forward to, year after year.
So when I decided to strike out as a reporter and travel to the Midwest, it came as a surprise to many, and somewhat of a personal challenge. I was leaving all that was familiar and beloved to experience something new, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Minneapolis was to be my end destination, but I started my trip in Wisconsin. A roundabout journey took me to both Stoughton and Westby, Norwegian settlements known for their Syttende Mai celebrations. I could see they were getting ready, their streets adorned with pairs of Norwegian and American flags and other decorations, so by the time I hit my end destination, I was fully in the mood for the big day.
Flags, flags, and more flags
Syttende Mai Minnesota is a gala dinner put on by the Syttende Mai Minnesota Committee and the Norwegian honorary consulate general on the evening of May 17. Each year it is a sellout, no wonder, considering how friendly and festive it is.
This year’s banquet was held at the Minnesota Valley Country Club, which was decked out for the occasion with Norwegian flags everywhere. It should be noted that they were the real thing: high quality Norwegian cloth flags in true colors. That’s how the Minnesotans do things for Syttende Mai, with quality and style. They understand that Norwegian Constitution Day is the most important day of the year for Norwegian Americans, and they pay it due respect.
On this festive evening there were lots of bunads to admire, and others dressed up in red, white, and blue to enhance the atmosphere. The well-known LeRoy Larson folk band provided the music during the cocktail hour, where it was fun to mingle and meet people. Among the many honored guests were Eivind J. Heiberg, honorary consul in Minneapolis and CEO of Sons of Norway and Sons of Norway Foundation, and most notably, Kåre R. Aas, Norwegian ambassador to the United States.
The highlight of the evening was Ambassador Aas’s address, which included a special message from the King of Norway. It was also exciting to hear that the Norwegian government has granted NOK 1.5 million to Norway House for the expansion of their cultural center. Executive Director Christina Carleton was on hand to receive his congratulations.
But no Syttende Mai celebration is complete without a song, and Ethan Bjelland of Norway House was there to lead the singing of the two national anthems and other patriotic tunes. He somehow stole the show, as we sang to our hearts’ delight, ending with “Norway in Red, White, and Blue.”
Saturday was the perfect day to explore Norway House, which has quickly become my new home away from home in Minneapolis. Their tagline is “kom hjem”—come home—and they do everything possible to make their guests feel welcome.
Upon entering, there is a café with a comfortable seating area where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and Norwegian waffle, or you can browse in the gift shop run by Ingebretsen’s, a famous Minneapolis Scandinavian importer. There is a lot to admire, and not prepared for the cold weather, I picked up a beautiful wool shawl from Norway, which has already fetched me a multitude of compliments.
I enjoyed the Sámi photo exhibit that was on display in the gallery. Norway House is not a museum, but it still is able to bring in top-flight exhibits from Norway and Norwegian America. It should also be noted that the building is home to Norway Art, a collection of fine art imported by Dr. Mary Jo Thorsheim. For the Scandinavian art connoisseur, a stop there is a must.
Norway House also offers a variety of classes on arts and crafts, and cooking (languages classes are offered by adjacent Mindekirken). I decided to finally learn how to make a kransekake and left with both the skills and inspiration to give it a try (my plan is to make one for Edvard Grieg’s birthday on June 15).
It is said that Syttende Mai is “Barnas dag,” the children’s day, and on Sunday, I got the full experience at Mindekirken, the Norwegian Memorial Lutheran Church. Built by Norwegian immigrants, it has been at its present location for 90 years. With its traditional Norwegian architecture, when you enter you feel like you are being transported in both time and space.
And yes, once again, there were flags and more flags to celebrate Norway’s national day. If a church service can be described as a gala, it was so festive that the label would fit. There were trumpet calls and choirs and a grand procession followed by the sermon. Mindekirken is blessed to be served by pastor Anne Brit Aasland, a Stavanger native who recently came from a parish in Bærum outside of Oslo. She was warm and down-to-earth, her words full of love and compassion, as she connected with the congregation.
A heavy downpour couldn’t stop the traditional parade, although the route was shortened to a walk around the block. With plenty to do inside, it somehow didn’t matter. Kids enjoyed folk dancing, a singing, a parade of bunads, face painting, crown making, and a family photo booth. There was also plenty for them to eat: hot dogs, “fake” Kvikk Lunsj (Kit Kat bars with Norwegian wrappers), and of course, all the ice cream a child could wish for. I’m no longer a kid, but I had a lot of fun and felt young. I had experienced Syttende Mai from the heart, full of gratitude for all that I shared with my newfound friends in the Midwest.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
To read more from the author’s travels to Nordic heritage locations in the Midwest, see also:
This article originally appeared in the June 14, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.