By Anya Bochman
Photos courtesy/Carl Anderson
Vasa Park, located in Budd Lake, is Morris County’s seat for the New Jersey District Six Vasa Order of America, a Swedish fraternal society. Although the park space is rented out for events to all manner of organizations, Vasa Park has its own professional staff and promises to serve patrons “in the Viking tradition.” This year, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the park will be host to the 35th Annual Scandinavian Fest (ScanFest).
Billed as “an all-day celebration of Scandinavia at its best,” the festival offers the community a way to discover the customs and history – as well as cuisine – of the six Nordic nations: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Staffed entirely by volunteers, the non-profit event aims to promote and celebrate both the historic and current life of Scandinavia.
According to Carl Anderson, Advertising and Promotional Coordinator of ScanFest, the festival’s inception can be traced back to a Chicago couple visiting New Jersey and deciding to form the local chapter of Vasa in the state. Soon, there were 15-20 local clubs along with a district lodge to host the organization.
“The festival started out as a small club picnic,” Anderson said. “Eventually, it branched out to reach other Scandinavians – not just the Swedish.”
After about ten years, the organizers realized that in order to reach out to the wider Scandinavian community, they needed to become established as an independent entity separate from the Vasa Order; to this end, ScanFest was incorporated in New Jersey as an independent 501(c)3 educational organization. In recent years, it has grown to become the largest Scandinavian festival of its type in the eastern United States, having some four to five thousand annual participants.
The Vasa Order of America was founded over a century ago as a benefit fraternal society for Swedish immigrants to the United States; it takes its name from Gustav Vasa, the 16th century king labelled as the founder of modern-day Sweden. As the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a great wave of Swedish immigration to America, the Vasa Order was formed to help its members integrate into American society.
At the time of the order’s founding, membership was limited to Swedish-born men. Over time, the focus of the organization underwent a change and the society has grown to meet the needs of the entire Scandinavian American community. Today, Vasa provides members a means to share their rich heritage with fellow Americans, as well as teaching them meaningful values of the “Old Country.”
Current membership to Vasa is open to men and women over 14 years of age with Nordic roots – Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish or Icelandic – as well as their spouses who would like to rediscover the traditions of their forefathers. Those who are not of Scandinavian ancestry but are demonstrably committed to the promotion and advancement of Nordic heritage and culture are also eligible for membership.
Vasa sponsors language classes and activity clubs in which folk dances are learned and performed in authentic costume. Whenever the members can, they share their heritage with the public through events such as Skand-Jam, Leif Erickson Smorgasbord and Festival, Lucia Pageant and Barnen’s Dag – an annual midsummer event. There are more than 150 local lodges in the Vasa Order, governed by 18 district lodges in the United States, Sweden and Canada.
In New Jersey, there are 12 individual lodges of the Vasa Order of America, comprising NJ District Six, with Vasa Park serving as their recreational and cultural center.
While some years after its inception, ScanFest became independent of Vasa in order to reach more people of Scandinavian heritage, according to Anderson the Vasa Order invited the festival back to its park ten years ago.
“We are not a fundraiser for any cause or group,” Anderson stated. “We hope that people will come to enjoy a fun and educational time, presenters and re-enactors to have a venue for performance, vendors to sell their wares and foods, artisans to demo their handwork, and kids to just have fun.”
Since ScanFest doesn’t have sponsorship, it is funded primarily by admission tickets ($14 for adults, $13 for seniors; children under 12 are admitted for free). Approximately a quarter of the funding comes from the 30-40 vendors that purchase booths at the annual festival.
The food vendors run the gamut from traditional Scandinavian cuisine to regular festival fare. As Anderson joked, some cultural Nordic delicacies – lutefisk, salted salmon and pickled herring – do not necessarily have universal appeal. Due to the very short growing season of the northern countries, many of their staple dishes originated from the need to preserve food before the advent of refrigeration. As a result, smoked and pickled fish features prominently on the Scandinavian menu.
“Not everyone likes the idea of eating cold raw fish, so we try to also have ‘American’ food,” Anderson said.
While Anderson estimates that about half of the festival’s participants have traditionally Scandinavian names, the
true demographics are difficult to determine given the “melting pot” nature of American society. He used to attempt to document the heritage of the attendees through survey questions, and determined that about 70 percent had ancestors who originally came from Sweden and Norway, with equal distribution between the countries. The remaining 30 percent were comprised of the other Nordic countries, which had smaller immigration waves to the United States.
“It’s hard to tell who has [Scandinavian] ancestry, because some people just don’t know,” Anderson said. “Many people my age who had European parents weren’t taught about our Scandinavian language and culture.”
Anderson, who is a chemical engineer from Gettysburg, Penn., said that his father was born in Sweden while his mother was American. His father wasn’t particularly invested in his cultural heritage, and Anderson first became interested in Sweden and its culture after attending a ScanFest in the 80s. He joined Vasa in 1987 and became involved with running the annual event.
Although Anderson doesn’t consider himself a historian, he is very well versed on the evolution of Scandinavian presence in America over the years. He pointed out that there was a Swedish and Finnish colony founded at the base of the Delaware River in what is now Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the early 1600s – some 50 years before the arrival of the British.
For the settlers of what was known as “New Sweden,” iron and smelting was a popular industry. Long before western Pennsylvania dominated the American iron and steel industries, southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey became the epicenter of colonial iron production. In a little over forty years – beginning in 1716 – Pennsylvania ironmasters erected nearly 50 furnaces and forges for producing iron stock and goods, and by 1840 the region’s national preeminence had been secured.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of New Sweden to the development of the New World is the traditional Finnish forest house building technique. The colonists of New Sweden brought with them the log cabin, which became such an icon of the American frontier that it is now thought of as a purely American structure.
“There was already a big Scandinavian historical presence that preceded the great immigration waves [in the late 19th century],” Anderson said.
Attendees of this year’s 35th Annual ScanFest will experience an educational immersion into some of this history. They will also be privy to a rich array of Scandinavian music and entertainment, with a set list that includes live musical performances by Westminster Conservatory of Music, which will feature pieces by Scandinavian composers.
Other musical guests include The Not Club of NYC, and Thornbjørn Rygir; the latter specializes in traditional Norwegian music with a multifaceted sound. The members use the twelve-string guitar, traditional hardanger fiddle and ordinary fiddle, which makes for a full and tight sound.
The sax ensemble Spirit of Scandinavia is also on the bill, as well as performances by Maria Langberg and Hanne Ladefoged-Dollase – a duo of sought-after Danish-born singers.
The Scandinavian Woman’s chorus of Rhode Island, which is the only Scandinavian women’s chorus on the Eastern Seaboard that sings four part harmony in all the Nordic languages as well as English, will likewise showcase its talents at ScanFest. The group’s mission is to promote Scandinavian music, culture and language.
A series of folk dancing ensembles will present traditional numbers from Sweden and Finland. Although their colorful native garb is sure to heighten the element of immersion into a different culture, the dancers will not be the only people to stand out sartorially – ScanFest is granting free admission to all patrons who come dressed in traditional Scandinavian outfits.
Other noteworthy events include field activities featuring Telge Glima, a traditional Nordic wrestling group from Sweden, and Norse ax tossing courtesy of The Slockbucklers. For patrons who have had a healthy helping of mead and machismo, there will be the Annual Jersey Wife Carry Competition – which is, apparently, an actual event that has been going on for years. Participants can grab a wife – any wife – and carry her through an obstacle course to win her weight in beer. The cultural significance of this practice is debatable.
There is also, of course, entertainment geared towards children, complete with clowns and puppeteers, such as The Mock Turtle Marionettes. For adults not typically inclined to, say, carrying wives, there will be educational programs on Scandinavian genealogy and a presentation by story-teller and author Margaret Thorell. Finally, a smorgasbord of artisans will demonstrate skills such as Scandinavian weaving, wood carving, blacksmithing and hardanger embroidery.
The overall effect adds up to a festive day of cultural celebration and merrymaking, which is, after all, the purpose of the event.
“Our operating premise is to hold an event that will present and promote the cultures, contributions, and current life of the Nordic peoples such that those who participate benefit in whatever manner they choose,” Anderson said.