Seattle Celebrates “Syttende Mai” with Music and Fanfare at Bergen Place Park
By Lori Ann Reinhall, Seattle-Bergen Sister Cities Association.
The 17th of May, or “Syttende Mai” as it is known in Norwegian, marks the day Norway ratified its constitution in the town of Eidsvoll (near Oslo) in 1814. After Christmas, it is the most important national holiday — a kind of Norwegian Fourth of July with much fanfare and flag-waving. It is also a special day for Norwegians and their descendants abroad to pay homage to the motherland. Nowhere else is the day observed with more style than in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, which has the largest parade outside of Norway and an array of activities for both young and old. At the center of it all is the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association with their annual Music of Syttende Mai show at Bergen Place Park.
As president of the SBSCA, I often get asked how I got involved with Sister Cities, and the answer is simple: Bergen Place. Six years ago I showed up there on the 17th of May to perform in musical act singing traditional Norwegian songs. Noticing that there was no official emcee, I stepped in and stayed onstage for the entire day. This led to a repeat performance the following year, and subsequently to my role as Music Director at Bergen Place. All of this did not go unnoticed by the Seattle-Bergen members, and soon I was asked to join their committee. Music is a passion of mine, and I volunteered to organize an annual Grieg concert. With its success, moving into a leadership role with the SBSCA seemed to be the next logical step.
Curating a show at Ballard’s Bergen Place is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Each year, the SBSCA works with the official Ballard 17th of May Committee to ensure that the entertainment lineup is both authentic and appealing. Following tradition, there are performances by the Norwegian Male Chorus (founded in 1889) and the Norwegian Ladies Chorus (singing since 1938) culminating in a combined performance of the Norwegian and American national anthems. Each year voices swell up in song from the audience — not without a few sentimental tears — on a day that celebrates common values between the two nations. Norwegian immigrants and Americans alike can be proud that the Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway was in part based on our own American Constitution.
Tradition also dictates that there will be accordion music on Syttende Mai. The accordion is one of the most versatile and popular instruments in the Nordic community. Most Scandinavian American children have had one strapped on their back at one time or another, and the mother-daughter duo Nordic Reflections did not disappoint their audiences with their toe-tapping renditions of old-time favorites. I even had the pleasure of joining in on a tribute to the iconic Northwest entertainer Stan Boreson with Yust a Little Lefse.
Lefse flatbread “Norskie” is a top food of choice on Syttende Mai, along with pølse, traditional Norwegian hotdogs. And, of course, there is ice cream, ice cream and more ice cream…
Traditional Norwegian costumes or “bunads” are also must for any celebration, and any visitor to Ballard on the 17th of May will be impressed with an array of colors in elaborate designs. In Norway, each village or valley has its very own costume, many with elaborate embroidery and exquisite silver jewelry. Because they are made of expensive materials and hand-sewn, purchasing a folk costume can be a major investment, and bunad dress etiquette is strict. It is impressive to see how many different varieties of Norwegian national dress have made their way to Ballard, where things are bit more relaxed. Some ladies trade off traditional footwear for gym shoes in order to march more comfortably in the parade. You see a mix of Norwegian and Swedish costumes, as well as various varieties of “Ballard bunads:” local creative designs that emulate the real thing. Everyone is happy to see the Leif Erikson Lodge Leikarringen folk dancers perform in costume at Bergen Place, later followed by the young musicians of Seattle Lilla Spelmanslag. Never mind that the latter may be more Swedish than Norwegian: Syttende Mai is a day when the entire Seattle Nordic community comes together to celebrate.
As curator at Bergen Place, it is always compelling to include the music of Edvard Grieg, Bergen and Norway’s most famous composer, and a piano performance by one of Seattle’s most up-and-coming musicians, Aaron Otheim, was perfect for the occasion. Grieg based much of his classical repertory on Norwegian folk tunes, and a few sing-along numbers served to reinforce the classical-folk connection and get the entire audience involved. Later the Norse Home Celebration Orchestra, a special ensemble of strings, flute and recorder, served up a medley of nostalgia of the most beloved Norwegian songs in original arrangements.
The city of Bergen is also known for its jazz and hosts one of Europe’s major festivals each year, so a performance by the Matt Jorgensen Jazz Combo was highly appropriate, especially since its leader is of Norwegian descent. But the real highlight of the afternoon was the appearance of this year’s guest artist, Eva Vea, from the island of Karmøy in Norway. Appearing onstage in traditional costume, Eva mesmerized the audience with her contemporary gospel-jazz versions of traditional Syttende Mai songs. A moving rendition of I am a Sailor on Life’s Way led into the day’s official dedication ceremony with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. A moment of silence was observed for those lost at sea on the crab boat Destination last February, a memorable and meaningful gesture for a community that has given so much to Seattle in the fishing and maritime industries.
Standing at Bergen Place Park each year with the backdrop of its mural depicting the Norwegian settlement in Ballard is an honor and a privilege that the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association is proud to share. The SBSCA was instrumental in the establishment of the park, which was dedicated by King Olav V in 1975.With the 50-year anniversary of the association, photo-journalist Emil Weatherhead Breistein visited Ballard for the celebration this year, sharing a photo exhibit from Bergen. His coverage of Syttende Mai in Seattle appeared in the weekend edition of Bergensavisen, and photo exhibits are planned in both Bergen and Seattle. The Ballard celebration, with all its costumes, flags, music and merriment, is a testimony to the important relationship between Norway and the United States, both past and present, and a strong, thriving and relevant sister city bond.