Sunday, 17 May 2009

Hooray for the 17th of May!

Anyone who has been to Norway on the seventeenth of May knows that we become a nation of enthusiastic patriots on this particular day. Journalist Chuck Haga of North Dakota's shares these "ten things you need to know if you aren’t Norwegian and find yourself invited to a Syttende Mai celebration":

1. Let’s get this out of the way first: Don’t sniff the air in your host’s kitchen and say with mock delight, “Ah, lutefisk!” They’ll know you’re faking.

Besides, lutefisk is for Christmas. The potential for disaster exists then, too, but it’s especially dangerous to work with lye-soaked cod in the warmer months.

Many recipes for lutefisk, handed down (not to say discarded) through generations, involve flattening the cod on a pine board, slathering it with butter, baking it on the board for 30 minutes, then tossing the fish and serving the board. (Yes, you’ve heard that joke before, usually involving duck or catfish. Where do you think it started?)

If you’re determined to make lutefisk part of your holiday tradition, you can find an honest-to-Odin recipe at (You have to wonder, though, about the reference there to “lutefisk from scratch.” Are there really boxes of pre-cooked lutefisk on shelves somewhere?)

2. Norwegian Independence Day.

Today isn’t that, though the day marks an important step toward independence and Syttende mai celebrations here and in Norway often resemble our Fourth of July.

May 17 is the anniversary of the day in 1814 when Norwegian patriots meeting at Eidsvoll produced a democratic constitution. Norway had been governed for almost 500 years as a province of Denmark, but the Danes were losers in the Napoleonic Wars, and the victorious powers handed control of Norway to the Swedish king. The Swedes, while taking control of foreign policy, graciously let the Norwegians keep their new constitution.

National feeling continued to swell in Norway, and the union ended peacefully in 1905. A prince of Denmark was invited to take the restored throne of independent Norway as Haakon VII. The reigning king, Harald V, is his grandson.

3. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians.

If this is a large party you’re invited to, there likely will be people of Swedish or Danish descent present. You may be tempted to say something like, “I can’t tell the difference.” Resist the temptation. As Hagar the Horrible once explained, after belting a French waiter who professed to see no difference, “Norwegians punch wise guys.”

4. Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans.

Not quite the same, either. There are more Socialists in Norway, for example, and they sometimes run the country. Norwegian-Americans tend to be more conservative, though earlier generations did champion the cooperative movement and join the Nonpartisan League. We also tend to be chubbier because we exercise less, though our Norwegian cousins apparently are catching up.

On Syttende Mai, Norwegian-Americans are prone to romanticizing the Norway of their ancestors, a rustic land, achingly beautiful but dirt poor. Norwegians sometimes resent this and point out that Norway today is a member of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and could buy Minnesota, especially at today’s valuation.

“Will there be lutefisk?” I once asked a friend in Oslo as Christmas approached. “No,” she said archly. “We have refrigerators now, and we thought you did, too.”

5. Language.

Visiting Norwegians: Don’t call child protection services if you hear one of our farmers talking about putting a coat of red paint on his barn. “Barn” may mean “child” over there, but here it’s something else. Same with your word for luck; you don’t want to wish your host a lot of “hell.”

6. Rosemaling.

It’s the beautiful and distinctive “flower painting” that adorns plates, wooden bowls and certain other surfaces in the old country but has found its way into unlikely places here, causing some visiting Norwegians great dismay. If you have rosemaled your dog’s water dish or the garbage cans, for example, hide them in the garage.

7. Food.

Yes, virtually all Norwegian-American food is white: boiled potatoes with cream sauce, cream porridge, rice pudding, potato dumplings, baked cod, lefse, flatbread. It’s why the better cooks put a jar of silvery pickled herring on the table. For color.

8. Ja vi elsker dette landet.

It’s the Norwegian national anthem, lyrics by Bjornstjerne Bjornson and first performed May 17, 1864, the 50th anniversary of the constitution (but not independence; see No. 1). You can learn the words, in Norwegian and English, at a Web site that also allows you to listen to Norwegian soprano Sissel Kyrkjebo sing the anthem accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Turn it up loud and be prepared to weep.

9. Emotion.

Except when Sissel Kyrkjebo sings “Ja vi elsker” or a Norwegian wins gold at the Winter Olympics, Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans tend not to display a lot of emotion. You may have heard of the Norwegian man who loved his wife so much … he almost told her. Anyway, don’t take it personally.

10. Bragging.

It’s another no-no. Again, we cite for authority a Hagar the Horrible comic. Hagar’s son is asking what he should say when people ask him about his ethnicity. “Tell them you’re a Scandinavian,” Hagar says. “And a Norwegian?” the boy asks. “Oh, no,” his father cautions. “That would be bragging.”

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to

I think I will have to share this with my pupils because I think it is interesting to learn how our culture looks from outside. Photo from flickr: Parade.

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