By Gideon Marcus
VISTA — People of Norwegian descent or just Scandinavian sympathies congregated Dec. 14 at Norway Hall for Juletrefest, the annual Norwegian Christmas festival.
There were all the
traditional entertainments. Children pinned paper hats on a troll. Traditionally attired storytellers regaled the audience with authentic Norwegian tales. Julenissen, the Norwegian Santa Claus, was on hand as revelers danced around the brilliant Christmas tree.
While the event was great fun, it was also part of the Hall’s effort to keep the Norwegian culture alive. Cultural events like the Jultrefest keep community members involved and bring in new, interested people. The traditional storytelling is an entertaining way to offer a window into a culture’s past.
“A lot of the cultural values and kind of the wisdom of the ancestors get put in these little stories and passed right along,” professional raconteur Patti Christensen said. “With our kids who watch so much TV and video games, what we want to make sure is that we don’t lose those treasures of the stories.”
Norway Hall is the center of the North County Norwegian community, a group that numbers in the thousands. When the hall was founded in 1952, its frequenters were immigrants or of immigrant stock. As time has marched on, immigration from Norway, now the richest country per capita in the world, has dwindled to almost nothing.
“A lot of the effort in the community goes to supporting this Hall and supporting outreach of all kinds, which isn’t easy, and it gets harder because we get more and more remote from immigration,” lodger Roy Tobin said.
The memory of the immigrant experience is fundamental to the history of Norwegians in America, who now outnumber Norwegians back home. Approximately 1.25 million immigrants came to America between 1860 and 1950. Virtually all of the first generation was poor. Many were sailors who jumped ship to strike it rich in America.
Lodge trustee Njar Undheim was in the last wave of those who came over before the discovery of oil in the North Sea made Norway a very rich country. His are some of the last firsthand recollections of the immigrant story.
“It was at the very end of the flood,” Undheim said. “Norway was very poor. Hardly no jobs.”
There is also growing effort by the lodge’s eldest generation to educate their grandchildren in the traditions of Norwegian culture and their immigrant past. For two hours on the first Sunday of every month, the Hall is transformed into a classroom. Thompson said the classes have been very successful.
The community is also keeping itself alive by broadening its appeal. You don’t have to be Norwegian to join any of the Hall’s tenant groups. In fact, the Norwegian Fish Club Odin, which focuses on Vikings and Medieval lore, boasts an African American member who goes by the pseudonym of Olaf den Svarte: “Olaf the Black”.
“You have to believe in the premise of furthering and fostering Norwegian culture,” Sons of Norway local chapter Vice President Jack Thompson said. “You can be anything as long as you go along with that.”
It is the hope of the tenants of Norway Hall that in maintaining the lodge and grounding the community in its heritage both Nordic and American, they will keep the Norwegian spirit alive in the region for a long time to come. Visit the Hall’s Web site at norwayhall.org.
By Gideon Marcus