With folk music filling the air, people join in traditional Scandinavian dancing. Photo by Annie Wilson
With folk music filling the air, people join in traditional Scandinavian dancing. Photo by Annie Wilson

Hipp, hipp, hurra for the upcoming Syttende Mai (17th of May) celebration in Ballard! This year is the 200th anniversary of Norway’s Constitution Day and the 125th celebration in Seattle.

The holiday was established to recognize the signing of Norway’s Constitution in 1814, a monumental movement toward Norwegian freedom from the Swedes.

Kim Nesselquist, Norwegian consul in Washington state, said that Norwegians are also grateful for the U.S. Constitution since Norway’s constitution is based on it. The two constitutions are some of oldest active constitutions in the world, the United States’ being the second and Norway’s the third.

I think that is really special and it shows how close the two countries are,” Nesselquist said. 

Cultural gathering

Seattle’s first Syttende Mai celebration began in May 1889, before Washington became a state in November. At first, it was a smaller banquet and community hall commemoration, but it eventually grew into a Ballard community parade in 1974. Today, it is the largest Syttende Mai parade outside of Norway.

“It’s a great community event but also points out the importance of and the significance of Norwegians in Seattle,” said Gail Engler, co-chair of the 17th of May Committee.

Syttende Mai in Ballard unites people throughout Washington and beyond. Traveling from Anchorage, Alaska, this year’s grand marshal is Marit Kristiansen, the international president of the Sons of Norway Foundation. Engler explained that Kristiansen rose through the ranks of the Sons of Norway organization and also grew up in Ballard.

“I thought it was pretty neat that she accepted,” Engler said.

The two honorary marshals are Mari-Ann Kind Jackson and Warren Aakervik, two prominent Norwegian-American figures in Ballard. There are also 10 honored guests who have made significant contributions to the Scandinavian community in Seattle, including Eric Nelson, director of the Nordic Heritage Museum, and Christine Anderson, historian of Leif Erikson Lodge Sons of Norway.

Norwegian organizations also joining the parade include Sons of Norway lodges, Daughters of Norway, Norse Home, Norwegian Male Chorus and Norwegian Ladies Chorus.

The parade also gathers many non-Norwegian groups such as school marching bands, drill teams and cheerleaders, unicyclists, clowns and Seafair Pirates.

“I think people will really come out with all of their traditional costumes and be full of Norwegian pride,” said Christy Olsen Field, the development associate of the Nordic Heritage Museum.

Nesselquist said that the Norwegian tradition of celebrating the 17th of May is mainly based on children, whereas Seattle’s parade is focused on organizations and tradition.

“I would love to see more schoolchildren [in the parade], and I would like to see more bands,” Nesselquist said. “Other than that, I think it is an absolutely fantastic celebration here in Seattle.”

A passionate group

Seattle resident Øystein Kjørsvik grew up in Bergen, Norway. Coming to the United States in 2008, Kjørsvik has celebrated the Syttende Mai in Ballard. He said that the celebration is naturally larger in Norway; however, Ballard’s enthusiasm is one to compete with.

“It’s really fun to see the level of interaction here, which in many ways can rival Norway,” Kjørsvik said. “It seems like people get really into it here, and everyone in the area is there to truly celebrate and enjoy a great Norwegian holiday. One can’t really help but admire the passion of some of the Norwegian old-timers around here.”

Engler said she would like “to see younger people step up and participate more, find out about [their] heritage and make sure that their history is not forgotten, because it is very easily forgotten.”

Nesselquist said Ballard’s Norwegian community “is very strong, it is very diverse and it is very committed to its heritage, so I think that it is a fantastic community.”

To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.

To watch a video from last year's event, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Rz2MSV6Ens