A History of Syttende Mai and How to Celebrate Online in 2020
Many people are surprised to learn that the Norwegian holiday Syttende Mai is celebrated in Seattle, Washington. Not only is Syttende Mai celebrated in Seattle, but the annual parade attracts an estimated 10,000 people each year, many even visiting from Norway to attend. Syttende Mai has been celebrated in Seattle going back to 1889, when Washington first became a territory, but due to COVID-19 the parade has been cancelled for 2020.
Now is a good time to look back at the history and importance of the Syttende Mai holiday and its celebration locally here in Seattle. I will also provide information on how to safely celebrate Syttende Mai in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The history of Syttende Mai
Syttende Mai translates literally to “17th of May”. In Norway the holiday is also referred to as Nasjonaldagen (National Day) or sometimes Grunnlovsdagen (Constitution Day). On May 17, 1814 the Norwegian Constitution was signed at Eidsvoll, granting Norway independence from the Denmark-Norway union (Dano-Norwegian Realm), of which Norway had been a subject since 1536. However, Norway then entered a loose union with Sweden which lasted until 1905 when Norway became a modern nation-state.
Syttende Mai started as a minor celebration among students in the years following 1814. The celebration was discouraged by leaders of both Norway and Sweden in order to prevent rebellions, and for some years in the 1820’s it was even banned. The holiday was first officially recognized in 1833. The holiday’s importance grew again in 1864 with the introduction of the first children’s parade in Christiania (now Oslo). Finally, in 1905 the union with Sweden was ended, thus ending any potential controversy.
As a coincidence, the German occupation of Norway during World War II ended on May 8, 1945. Today, May 8 is celebrated as Frigjøringsdagen (Liberation Day). Although Liberation Day is important in Norway, and is also celebrated as a Veteran’s Day, much of the sentiment regarding the end of occupation is also reflected in Syttende Mai celebrations.
Syttende Mai is celebrated today in Norway by attending parades, wearing traditional outfits (bunads), singing the national anthem, and with enjoying traditional food and drink. The children’s parades that take place throughout the country give testament to the non-military and peaceful intentions of the holiday.
Traditional foods served on Syttende Mai include rømmegrøt (sour cream porridge), lefse (potato-based flatbread, pølse (boiled sausage), smørbrød (open-faced sandwich), bløtkake (cream cake), and fårikål (mutton stew). It’s also customary to have a “skål” (cheers) with akvavit, a uniquely Scandinavian spirit flavored with a number of spices, including caraway and/or dill seed.
Syttende Mai in Seattle
The first Syttende Mai celebrations in Washington date back to May of 1889, in fact before Washington became a state later that year. In fact, there is a surprising amount of detail available regarding this first celebration. On May 17 there were banquets held at two different hotels. The first banquet was for both men and women and was held at the Bellevue Hotel for the cost of a dollar. Later in the evening there was a separate meal for men only held only for men at The Arlington Hotel. The ten-course menu, written in French, included caviar, filet of sole, asparagus, and finishing cigars and liqueurs for the price of $5.
The following day there were additional celebrations held at the Armory Hall in Seattle. The event included speeches from politicians, newspaper editors, and other important members of society at the time. Celebrations have likely been held in every year since, in some form, throughout Seattle and surrounding communities. Other cities in Washington that have also hosted celebrations include Mukilteo, Vashon Island, and Poulsbo.
The annual Syttende Mai parade in Ballard became tradition in 1974. The Ballard neighborhood of course was one of the initial settlements in the Seattle area and was an independent city until it was annexed by Seattle in 1907. Ballard had attracted white settlers as early as the 1850’s, largely of Norwegian and Swedish descent, who were attracted by the area’s maritime industries.
The Scandinavian heritage of Ballard has been preserved by a number of cultural institutions including the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association (founded in 1967), the Sons of Norway Leif Erikson Lodge, the National Nordic Museum (previously the Nordic Heritage Museum), the nearby Swedish Club, and many others. Ballard also is home to a revolving host of Scandinavian businesses and restaurants including Skål Beer Hall, Scandinavian Specialties and Larsens Bakery.
Each year the parade hosts a variety of marchers including ethnic clubs (such as Sons of Norway), local marching bands and drill teams, and many other local and corporate sponsors that may vary from year to year. Today, the celebration is far from just an ethnic celebration. Seattle-ites of all backgrounds flock to the yearly event, and the parade for many is simply a rite of summer, along with the many other summer parades held in Seattle.
Celebrating During a Global Pandemic
The Seattle Syttende Mai celebration was cancelled as early as March 24 when the event permit was suspended. That said, there are a number of online events that we will be held tomorrow to help you celebrate.
- From 9am to 11:30am PDT join the House of Norway, from Balboa Park, San Diego, for their virtual celebration. For the final archived event, please see here.
- At 12pm PDT the Royal Norwegian Consulate of Seattle hosts a live event via Microsoft Teams. The General Consul of San Francisco will deliver a special message from His Majesty King Harold. This event is not archived online.
- At 1pm PDT join Inger-Kristine Riber, Reidun Horvei, and some of the best artists from the Hardanger region for a special Syttende Mai concert, sponsored by Norwegian American. This event is not archived online.
- At 2:30 PDT tune in to hear traditional folk music as played on the Hardanger fiddle. Hosted by Rachel Nesvig. For the archived performance, please see here.
- For other U.S. and international events from Norwegian American, see their Events Calendar.
- Finally, there are of course many online events directly from Norway, especially from NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation). Here is a list of Syttende Mai programming (use Google translate for English). Unfortunately, it is difficult to access NRK outside of the country. The following link includes directions on how to use a VPN to access the online feed.
For Seattle-ites there are still a few ways that you can help local businesses.
- Skål Beer Hall in Ballard is offering a full take-out menu of Norwegian food and beverages (including akvavit, available for Pick-up. For full details see here.
- Scandinavian Specialties is available for mail order during this time. You can help support future Syttende Mai celebrations by ordering a Syttende Mai pin.
- If you are a local to Ballard consider supporting any other local restaurant or business that is open during this time.
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