Ups and downs of 17. mai in Brooklyn
Through the Depression, WWII, and more, Norwegian Americans mark Grunnlovsdagen
Norwegian-American festivities tend to happen in clusters, grouped around red-letter days: May for Syttende Mai, June for Midsummer, October for Leif Erikson Day, and December for Jul. In Brooklyn, where many Norwegians settled and lived, forming enclaves along its southern shore, these days were and still are celebrated with gusto.
Today, the largest and most collaborative Syttende Mai event in Brooklyn is its parade. But that was not always the case. There had been a long history of marking the day, but in a variety of ways.
In May 1889, the day began with a bang, literally, at sundown “with the booming of a cannon.” The order of that 17th of May was music, dancing, and fireworks. Held in a park, there was a march within, led by a band. Swedes participated, and a Swedish official spoke, congratulating the Norwegians for their constitution. And it was noted in a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article that Norwegians had been holding these 17th of May festivities for 10 years, so we know folks had been celebrating in Brooklyn since at least 1880.
Organizers of that celebration had hoped that Norwegian flags would be hung over City Hall (then in Brooklyn) and City Hall was willing. However, they did not have Norwegian flags to hang. The guest speaker at the celebration lamented this fact, hoping that in a city as diverse as Brooklyn that Norwegian flags would be obtained for next year. The writer also advocated that flags of all the nations represented in the city should be available.
Activities for the 17th did not remain in one fixed location. In 1934, they took place in Ulmer Park, an area along the waterfront that hugs Gravesend Bay and abuts the bridge to Coney Island. In its heyday, it boasted a pier, carousel, and beer garden. It had long been a derelict area, but now part of this neglected stretch has reemerged as a green space and sports area.
There were to be parades, fireworks, sports events. The event even took to the skies, featuring an aerial display by Thor Solberg, the distinguished Norwegian aviator, who was planning to fly across the Atlantic. The partying went on for two days and was sponsored by the United Norwegian Societies of New York. They anticipated that it would draw 5,000 spectators.
But there were many 17th of May bashes being held throughout the then-borough of Brooklyn. Heading about 6 miles north along the shore, the Norwegian National League held an event at the Second Naval Battalion Armory, where “exercises” were to be held. This event kicked off with a street parade. A few of the highlights of that occasion include: conductor Ole Windingstad directing 100 singers, a drill demo from Urd Lodge by 44 Daughters of Norway, 40 Folk Dancers, and a calisthenics show by the Norwegian Turn Society; 4,000 were expected.
There was also an after party hosted by the Norse Republican Club at the Masonic Temple in Bay Ridge. It was known as a “souper.” All of this was taking place during the Great Depression, but even that could not dampen the Norwegian spirit and pride.
A mere six years later, an abrupt chilling change occurred in how this day was to be marked, with the Nazi occupation of Norway on April 9, 1940. A more somber 17th of May emerged, as all eyes were fixed on the mother country and its people. “Weeping Norwegians mark independence—holiday spirit gone as Boro citizens pray for peace in their homeland,” read the banner of a May article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of that year.
Fireworks and aerial displays were replaced by efforts to support the people and legitimate government of Norway. As stated in the Eagle, “Norway’s national holiday, May 17, which has usually been celebrated with gaiety and festivities by the Norwegians in Brooklyn, will have a more somber and thoughtful purpose … realizing the distressing circumstances and need of help, which must be given to the war-stricken people of Norway.”
The 17th of May became a time to mobilize. Six local Sons of Norway lodges—Faeder, Brooklyn, Polar, Stavanger, Arbeideren, and Saga—organized a relief drive. There was some lightheartedness as music and folk dancing presentations were included. However, the guest speakers were chosen to be on point about the grave situation in Norway and to motivate the guests to contribute financially. Speakers included Minnesota congressman Harold Knutson, who had traveled to Norway in 1939 as a member of a congressional committee. He therefore had firsthand understanding of the severity of the situation. A representative from the Norwegian Delegation in Washington, Jorgen Galbe was also present, as well as Borgny Hammer, a well-known Norwegian actress who continued to act on the American stage. She had returned to Norway in 1939, and as one of the first eyewitnesses of the invasion, she had been interviewed in the Norwegian American paper.
That same year it was decided that “A Sad Norwegian Independence Day will be observed tomorrow at a luncheon in the Norwegian restaurant, at the Norwegian Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair.” Originally, this gathering was going to be canceled. But minds were changed as a sign of resistance.
After the war, Norway was devastated. In 1951, there is a record of a 17th of May commemoration at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But the event had not yet returned to gaiety of the days prior to the war. In fact, Norwegian Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen took the opportunity at this affair to hail U.S. aid to western Europe; there was still hard work to be done to get Europe and Norway back on their feet. Norway had its freedom but also its compromised infrastructure and broken economy. “Norway feels respect and gratitude” for the American people for their help to western Europe, stated Gerhardsen.
By 1952, a consolidated effort to create an American-style parade with Norwegian flair to commemorate the 17th of May emerged in Brooklyn. The parade added elements beyond a procession of children in bunads waving flags, as is traditional in Norway. The parade included floats, adult marchers, non-Norwegian organizations, and pipers.
There had been Norwegian Day parades held as far back as the late 1800s. A few were even held in Manhattan, but none seemed to take hold on a consistent basis. To this day, the parade in Bay Ridge continues. It has changed routes, and survived the cleaving of the community in two, the demolition of 2,000 homes in the area (many lived in by Norwegians) to make way for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, a change in immigration policy, the removal of shipping to the New Jersey side of the harbor (a main source of Norwegian employment), many recessions, and all else that life has to offer.
This year’s parade theme is “Honoring our Veterans,” with a focus on the Norwegian War Sailors. There could be no better emblem for this parade than those men who refused to surrender.
Thanks to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives for the quotes and documentation of the history of 17th of May celebrations in Brooklyn and beyond.
This article originally appeared in the May 4, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.