It’s September 17, 2020.
Six years ago this was the publication date for my debut novel, ODIN’S PROMISE, in which the holiday plays a pivotal role in the plot. Each year since then I’ve attended a festival or book fair or other event to celebrate Syttende Mai here in the USA.
In Norway, this is their annual CONSTITUTION DAY, the equivalent of our Fourth of July. Traditional celebrations there normally involve parades, parties, games, musical groups, picnics… all public gatherings of friends and family.
None of those options are possible while the COVID19 pandemic remains uncontrolled. It’s disappointing, to be sure.
The actual end-date for this necessary distancing can’t yet be predicted, but we know an end will eventually arrive. That was not the case in 1940.
That year in Norway, May 17 arrived barely five weeks after the German invasion. Celebrations of Syttende Mai were forbidden. Norway’s national identity was being erased. In short order, Germany imposed a new flag, outlawed traditions, even required German language rather than Norwegian. Despite hopes (and secret efforts) to free Norway from German control, the years dragged on.
Their struggles extended far longer than this pandemic will.
In several of my very early versions of what later became ODIN’S PROMISE, a secretive celebration of Syttende Mai on that first occupied holiday forms the concluding scene of the draft. I’ll share it now as a reminder:
Interruptions in tradition may be challenging, but we must not sacrifice our deepest values and sense of community for the sake of short term disappointments.
I hope you enjoy this Syttende Mai resistance scene.
A village party has been arranged on Syttende Mai under the premise of celebrating a wedding. Provisions for a party were scarce, some suspicious German soldiers had been diverted, but finally…
Nearly an hour passed before the scattered groups had reassembled near the schoolyard entrance. Blankets and chairs were drawn into a semi-circle around a freshly-set table. Nils and Sonja were seated at the center, with their closest relations to either side. At the table, fine crystal was used. For the rest, cups, mugs, and glasses of every type were quickly passed among the crowd.
Knut was dipping pitcher after pitcher into a vat of clear liquid, passing each to others who spread out through the crowd, pouring small portions into the adults’ cups.
“What are you up to, Knut?” Nils called to his brother, laughing.
“Why do you suppose there were no second helpings of potatoes this year, little brother? We couldn’t let you marry without a toast, and you can’t make a toast without aquavit!”
The crowd, which had relaxed considerably after the departure of the Germans, laughed along. Soon Knut took his place at the table to give a loving toast to his brother and new sister. Then Sonja’s parents spoke in heartwarming detail about their love for both Sonja and Nils. Lise and Kristia spoke by turns, welcoming Sonja as a sister and praising their hard work and courage to provide this day. With each toast a tiny sip of the potent homemade alcohol was savored.
It had been a long and glorious day, although not without its moments of anxiety. Now the setting sun filled the sky with a cascade of rose, violet, and gold. Spring gusts rippled the scattering clouds creating an image not unlike a rainbow waterfall. At the base of the mountain the luminous sky was reflected on the fjord’s surface.
The time had finally come to serve the celebration cake, that unique creation called an almond wreath cake. Traditionally, as many as fifteen rings of rich almond pastry are stacked in a tower. Rising like a cone, each wreath is slightly smaller than the one below. Delicate icing decorates each ring, with a tiny bride and groom perching at the top. Sometimes small bows or foil trinkets adorn the wreaths, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Always, always, it is decorated with small paper flags of Norway.
Securing ingredients for the cake had been a primary focus of Nils’ many treks across the mountains. Enough sugar and almonds for a small cake would have been a challenge to obtain. In order for every guest to have a serving, “extra” wreaths are baked to accommodate larger crowds. In this case, Nils had barely managed to provide enough supplies for the expected number. When reports leading up to this day suggested so many more guests would arrive, Sonja’s mama managed to make a few additional wreaths, enough so that each guest could at least have a bite.
In the shimmering glow of the setting sun, Mama carried the towering cake covered with tiny flags to the table. All eyes were focused on the cake at first, until someone noticed Papa following several meters behind. He proudly carried a full-sized flag of Norway on a tall standard. Nils and Sonja stood up and placed their hands over their hearts. People slowly rose to their feet in silence.
Years later, those who were there still ask each other if they can remember what that moment was like, how it began. No two people agreed on the details, but all agreed on the result.
Someone began to sing “Ja, Vi Elsker”, the national anthem. When the first verse was finished, the next began. Flags appeared like lightning bugs, first one, then the next, then a swarm. From nearby homes, from pockets and bootlegs, from under skirts and inside jacket linings, flags arrived as if by magic. Every hand, young or old, large or small, held a flag aloft.
As the final verse rang out, the group stood in silence. A murmur from near the mountain’s rim caught their attention. A silhouette stood next to the school flagpole where the Flag of Norway was slowly rising.
Again, their voices joined in “Ja, Vi Elsker”, this time with the reverence of a hymn. The flag of their homeland rose to the top of the pole, snapping proudly in the gathering evening breeze. The sounds of their voices combined with a view of their flag against the background of a spectacular sunset, merging for a magical moment, creating a memory for a lifetime.
Through the four years of continued German occupation that followed, it was a moment that sustained many. Those who were there carried the story with them across the mountains and valleys of Norway. A traditional Norwegian saying is “Courage is the ability to hold on one moment longer.” For many who were there and all those who heard the story, memories of that day made it possible to hold on through the long hard days and years ahead.
Stay safe, and well, and STAY HOME. Please.