We live in Lindsborg, Kansas, a small town that celebrates its Swedish heritage hard. This year was a Hyllningsfest year, celebrated biannually in early October when the entire town dons Swedish costumes and there’s music all over the place. It is a bit like entering Disney’s Small World ride, but it lasts for three days straight and there is a big fixation on Swedish meatballs.
Hyllningsfest involves a lot of things, but mainly if you are a mom, it means your children are going to dance. It’s not a “Oh, I think I’ll pass and do flag football instead” kind of thing. Your child will wear tights. And knickers. And they will dance.
The weekend of Hyllningsfest my children needed to be fully costumed and ready to go on an early Saturday morning, and, as is customary in our household, we were totally running late. I think children sense deadlines and something in their synapses just sparks out in revolt. We were due to leave at 9:30 and one kid was still whining fruitlessly about wearing tights, and the other was still in his robe and Lego Batman underwear, singing to his oatmeal.
My Swedish heritage is nonexistent. I am German, and I don’t like lutefisk—cod that has been preserved in lye and looks like something my cat gakked up, and which some Swedes consider acceptable fare. That morning I wasn’t really liking my children either.
And then, they actually got dressed and walked down the stairs.
Do you remember that classic ’90s movie She’s All That? The one where the nerdy girl takes off her glasses and puts on a dress and is thus transformed into ethereal beauty? Well, think that, but with no weirdness because it’s my kids, and also, in knickers and vests. Parents, I tell you. If you are having a bad day with your kids? Get yourself some Swedish clothes and put them on them. After that? All is forgiven.
They are so adorable it just simply cancels out any sort of bad behavior. This is, perhaps, how the early Swedish settlers made it this far out here, smack in the middle of the United States. Their children survived because of adorableness, and more children kept happening because of it.
It’s a solid theory.
The experience of Hyllningsfest in our town is a smorgasbord of events and food and amazing costumes and also something called a Viking on a Stick. There is a parade, and there are food trucks and little girls running around with flower crowns. There is a maypole, even though it’s not May, and it feels like a Broadway musical landed on our town.
During Hyllningsfest we are all apt to don a costume and start singing and dancing. Actually, some of us older folks do that. I spied a friend’s dance troupe of older adults, with one tall gentleman in dark breeches and a black felt hat, pirouetting carefully with a woman in a wheelchair. Her costume was simple and white, and her smile was huge.
I also watched the high school kids who form our traveling Swedish dancers group. They were so blue eyed and ruddy cheeked it was almost too wholesome for my own good. The images of those tall, strapping Swedish boys swinging their fair maidens around in their arms was our own Rogers and Hammerstein, performed on brick streets amidst bleachers and proud parents. I took so many pictures my data plan just threw up its hands in defeat.
But when I saw my seven-year-old with his brown corduroy cap held up only by large ears bow to his partner with her braids and flower crown, I stopped with the pictures. Instead, I just sat and watched, and wondered: How does this kid, who has a hard time remembering the right way to put on pants, manage to become so perfect in this moment?
All parents think this. We can’t help it. Hyllningsfest is a reminder that a little fiddle music and our kids holding hands and skipping is a sign that there is still good in this world. The rest of the weekend continues with a Technicolor glow.
My husband persuades his visiting father to buy and actually consume the Viking on a Stick. It is not as grim as it sounds. It’s just a bunch of Swedish meatballs, skewered and deep fried.
I order a bag of freshly made donuts, sprinkled in powdered sugar and tasting like little pockets of deep-fried heaven. I don’t share. Both children, still in costume, stand blinking in front of me, and I don’t share. Their cuteness is still prominently on display, but those donuts are their kryptonite.
Actually both boys have each consumed so many fair food delicacies that I don’t think their bombarded palates would actually appreciate the teensy donuts. I let them slurp on my Tropical Sno instead because it’s been at least seven minutes since their last meal.
We walk around. We watch the Spoon Guy play his Flaming Spoons of Death, and I’m not even kidding about that. We look at the crafts and enjoy the sunshine. I find myself humming “Children of the Heavenly Father” at intervals throughout the day. This is the hymn that the children—my children—sing in Swedish at the beginning of the festivities.
I overhear Henry mumbling it softly to himself later in the day, once again, in Swedish, and I have to stop and stare at him. Did I mention this is the kid with the issues in making sure his shoes go on after his pants?
But here he is, all multilingual this weekend. His lispings of a hymn in a foreign language, one that likes to rely on some really twisty uses of simple vowel sounds at that, are pretty awe-inspiring.
Hyllningsfest is a time to gather and get our Swede on, even if the only Swedish thing we know is that chef puppet on the Muppet Show. We don’t mind. The truly Swedish townspeople don’t mind either. We gather and celebrate and dance and it is simply divine.