Monday, May 15, 2006

Happy Syttende Mai

Wednesday May 17 is Norway's Constitution Day, similar to our July 4. Norwegian Americans will be celebrating the Syttende Mai (SET'-na-my') in many places including the Minneapolis St. Paul area where four locations are used just to handle the crowds. The largest one in our state runs this weekend in Stoughton just south of Madison. They are expecting over 40,000 visitors for not one but two parades, Norwegian dancers, rosemaling, and the Crazy Legs Run which begins at the State Capitol and finishes in Stoughton.

Roughly 10% of Wisconsinites can point to Norway as a genealogy point of orgin. There are pockets of Norwegians all over the state: Iola-Scandinavia, Stoughton, Mount Horeb, Coon Valley (near Viroqua), Spring Valley, River Falls, Baldwin, and of course nearby Winchester,WI.

Mount Horeb has long nosed Norwegian Trolls nosing in on your business everywhere you look and "Little Norway", a great place to visit. Some immigrants settled in southern Wisconsin but many more were spooked by the Orms(snakes) and preferred to be farther north. The area from Eau Claire to the Twin Cities is heavily infested with Norwegians. Garrison Keillor lived in that area of Wisconsin for many years and his story ideas reflect it. If I visited one of my relatives up that way and was given a piece of rhubarb pie I might be offered the rest of it to take home, and if I didn't I'd have one Norwegian baker hopping mad at me. Uffda!

I find the Winchester, Wisconsin group the most interesting. This is all because of a book written about one family that came from Norway and settled there. It is a very personal genealogy which on the surface would sound boring, but the exact opposite is the case. It is titled: 'Wisconsin My Home'. It is much much more than a genealogy, it's an everyman's tale of Europeans who came to the midwest...their successes, failures, and all of the detail in between. What first caught my attention was a death on board the Steamer headed for America. The ship's captain ordered the body thrown into the Atlantic for health reasons. At the moment it was done a whale which had been following the ship bolted out of the water and grabbed the body in its jaws and disappeared. The family boarded smaller vessels to transverse the Great Lakes and eventually a small boat in Green Bay to go up the Fox River. They made it to Winneconne or Omro, I can't remember which, and while waiting all day for friends in Winchester to come and lead the way to their new home they had a terrifying experience. A rich childless couple of English origin tried to buy their youngest son!!! To leave the secure trappings of home and the Norwegian language and arrive in this distant foreign place and in the first few hours have a total stranger try to buy your own flesh and blood??! They must have thought they had arrived at the pit of Hell. Their first experience in America! 'Wisconsin My Home' is a must read, one which grips and at times is impossible to put down. Published about 1950, it has been reissued in paperback. Oshkosh Public Library has three or four original hardcover copies with beautiful plates(pictures).

More about the Syttende Mai can be learned at the Sons of Norway, also the Decorah, Iowa celebration. Decorah houses the official Norwegian-American Museum and Genealogy Center.

A bit of history...
The people from the Land of the Midnight Sun had a pagan celebration of note. On the summer equinox, June 20-21 the longest day of the year, the northernmost Norwegians would party all night. Night would never actually occur, it would just get dim for an hour with the sun still visible on the horizon. They would drink and dance naked around bonfires and I will let your imagination complete the party. A very toned down version of this will happen at Little Norway in June. Weeks after a person could get cleansed of sin by celebrating St. Olaf's Day. Yes! There is a St. Olaf, and why is it that the church of Rome always put religious holidays close to pagan rituals on the calendar?

I will celebrate by eating lefse, a soft unleavened flat potato bread which is great for any meal. Pick&Save has it. Festival does too. It's in the refrigerated section with the Mexican wraps. Great finger food, you can wrap your omelette in it to eat on the way to work, put your cold cuts and cheese in it for lunch, and a tortilla later in the day. For lefse go here and here. Hint: Nuke a store boughten piece for 7-10 seconds to give it that just off the grill heat.

UFFDA! Dat lefse is goooood stuff. YOU BETCHA!

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