Photos by Martin Ng
This year's 17th of May parade and festivities celebrates 125 years of honoring Norway’s Constitution Day over 4,500 miles from Oslo, in Ballard.

17th of May celebration remains vibrant after 125 years

By Kelsey K. Larson

The city of Seattle, Wash., like most major U.S. cities, is made up of a diverse patchwork of immigrants. It doesn’t matter when they arrived or where they came from; what all these groups have in common is the passing along of traditions to their children and grandchildren. It’s these traditions that continually lend richness to our community.

2014 is a special year for Norway as it celebrates the 200th anniversary of its constitution on May 17. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Norwegian-Americans have their own special anniversary. The 17th of May Committee, the dedicated team behind the annual 17th of May parade and festivities, celebrates 125 years of honoring Norway’s Constitution Day over 4,500 miles from Oslo, in Ballard.

The 17th of May Committee is made up of volunteers who sacrifice their time throughout the year to create a unique community event that draws thousands of visitors each year, from Washington State and beyond. The holiday includes a luncheon, activities for kids, musical performances, and finally a parade featuring hundreds of Norwegian-American and other Scandinavian groups and organizations. Co-chairing the Committee this year are Gail Engler and Kae Ellingsen. Ellingsen has been part of the 17th of May team since 1999; Engler for the last four years.

“Being on the 17th of May Committee is like having a second full-time job,” Engler says of the commitment. “We rely on many volunteers and supporters to make all the components of the day’s events successfully come together.”

The team begins planning ten months in advance, or more.

“We try to make each year’s event better than the last,” says Ellingsen.

Engler, Ellingsen and the rest of the Committee are doing more than their share of carrying on a valued community tradition – in fact, according to a history of Seattle’s celebration compiled by Christine M. Anderson, the first 17th of May festival in Seattle was held before Washington even became a state – in 1889.

“The two-day celebration started on Friday, May 17th, with two banquets. The first was for both men and women, held at the Bellevue Hotel, for the cost of a dollar,” wrote Anderson. “Later that evening an elegant dinner for men only was served around 11 p.m. at The Arlington Hotel. It was arranged by Frank Oleson, and included toasts for The Seventeenth of May; Seattle; The Ladies; America; and Liberty. The ten-course menu, written in French, included caviar, fillet of sole, asparagus, and finished with cigars and fine liqueurs – all for the price of $5. The party dispersed at 3 a.m.”

Since then, celebrations have been held at a wide variety of venues in Seattle; Norwegian-Americans also traveled by steamer to jointly celebrate the day in Mukilteo, Vashon Island, Poulsbo, and Seattle. Important guests have included governors, state and federal congressmen, ambassadors, members of Norwegian parliament, judges, professors, mayors and publishers. In 1922, Captain Roald Amundsen, famed Norwegian explorer, and members of his team even attended the celebration.

The tradition of holding a community parade in Ballard, where many Scandinavian immigrants to Seattle originally settled, began in 1974. Ballard has changed since then, of course, now well-known for its hip restaurants, stylish properties and beautiful waterfront.

“Given the recent surge of changes in Ballard – the massive loss of Scandinavian businesses along Market Street and the vanishing visual reminders of Ballard’s rich Scandinavian history, culture and origins – I think it is extremely important that the 17th of May festivities continue to be a part of the Ballard tradition to remind all people of the strong heritage, spirit and community connection Ballard has to its Scandinavian roots,” says Ellingsen. “Contrary to popular opinion, there are still many people of Scandinavian descent living and working in Ballard!”

“It may not be bestemor’s (the Norwegian word for grandmother) Ballard anymore, but the Norwegian spirit is alive and well,” adds Engler. “Bestemor would be proud to see her ancestors still celebrating this special day in Norwegian history!”

The future is bright for Ballard’s 17th of May celebration, which remains vibrant, attracting more people each year and continuing to appeal to locals and their families. Ballard residents set their chairs out along the parade route early in the morning to guarantee ringside seats.

“The parade brings people not just from from Ballard and Seattle, but from all across Washington and the Pacific Northwest. Even visitors from Norway abandon their own syttende mai celebrations to come join in the festivities here in Ballard. Although the nature of the celebration may have changed over the years, it is significant that we are continuing to keep Norwegian history and culture alive 125 years later,” said Engler. “It greatly impacts the community in that everyone can participate in the celebration and it brings attention to the many contributions that Norwegian-Americans have made over the years here in Seattle, and specifically in Ballard.”

Even so, Ellingsen says, the Committee relys on interest and support from the community to keep this celebration alive. Right now, organizations with representatives on the Committee include various Daughters of Norway lodges, Sons of Norway lodges, and other groups such as the Karmøy Club, the Norwegian Commercial Club, Norwegian Ladies Chorus, Norwegian Male Chorus, Norse Home, and the Ballard Chamber of Commerce. “However, every year, groups experience dwindling membership numbers and are forced to shut down,” Ellingsen says. “The key element that will result in its success down the road is the people involved.”

Hopefully, the people of the Seattle Norwegian-American community will continue to pass this wonderful celebration down through generations; besides contributing to Seattle’s colorful patchwork of traditions, it is truly a memorable event.

“The 17th of May has always been a special day for me – as it is for most Norwegians,” says Consul Nesselquist. “Growing up in Hallingdal, Norway, I still remember the excitement that followed this day. As an adult, and as Consul of Norway, I have to say that leading the Ballard parade with my family and the Grand Marshal is very special, and a favorite moment.”

This article originally printed in the Norwegian American Weekly, May 10, NorwegianAmericanWeekly.com

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