The southernmost country of Scandinavia, Denmark is located in Northern Europe. The sea is no more than 45 minutes away from anywhere in this country with 4,600 miles of coastline and just over five million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom are Protestant. Denmark is best known for its seafaring Vikings, clean-lined furniture and architecture, smørrebrod (open-faced sandwiches), storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid, and philosopher Sören Kierkegaard. Settled over 10,000 years ago by Germanic tribes, the Kingdom of Denmark also includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Given the one-time political unity of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, the Danish language is mutually intelligible to speakers of Swedish and Norwegian. Located north of Germany, Denmark is also the most "European" in culture of the Scandinavian countries. TOP
Danes in Iowa
Danes first came to Iowa in the 1870s to seek new economic opportunities
and keep their families together. Scandinavians represent the second
largest group to come to Iowa in the nineteenth century; of that larger
ethnic category, the Danish were the third national group to arrive
(after Swedes and Norwegians). Newly arrived families improve their
economic stability by purchasing land for $1.25 an acre or going into
business or trades. The first Danish settlements were along the
Mississippi in Clinton and Lyons. Movement west to Des Moines was
followed by settlements in Western Iowa. In Shelby and
Audubon counties, they created the towns of Elk Horn and Kimballton,
which comprise the largest per capita population of Danes in the United
States. In 1896, Danes in Des Moines founded Grand View College,
affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and later
the Danish-American Historical Association. In 1983, the Danish
Immigrant Museum in Elk Horn was organized to exhibit, preserve, and
pass on Danish heritage.
Danish Folk High School Movement
Danes in Iowa were also eager participants in the Danish Folk High School Movement, a late 19th century phenomenon that focused on the history, religious, and cultural education of young adults. Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig, Lutheran pastor, poet, hymn writer, and historian, wanted to restore national pride after a series of economic and political crises. Danish immigrants took Grundtvig's idea to the United States and founded a series of Danish Folk High Schools that focused on history, religion, and patriotism as well as agricultural and vocational training. In 1878, the Danes of Elk Horn opened a folk school to preserve Danish culture in America. While neither this nor any of the other folk schools survived the Depression in the 1930s,
the concept has been revived since in Danish and other communities to teach a variety of folk arts. TOP
Hardanger Embroidery "We certainly were American, but I treasure my Danish heritage . . .. I was brought up Danish, and I'm not satisfied with a substitute."
- Nadjeschda Lynge Overgaard
While Danish women practice a number of embroidery styles, the best known is the three-dimensional, open, "counted thread" needlework known as Hardanger embroidery. Scandinavian immigrants brought this needlework style, which originated in Norway's Hardanger region, to the United States. Traditionally, white cotton thread is applied to an even-weave white linen of 22 threads per inch. The fabric is cut in squared, geometric patterns determined by counting stitches; traditional stitches, such as the basic satin stitch, are applied around the edges of the cutwork to create a range of minutely detailed patterns. The loose ends of the cut fabric are interwoven into the embroidery, adding additional texture.
Nadjeschda Lynge Overgaard (1905-2002) was one of Elk Horn's finest practitioners of hardanger embroidery. In recognition of her deep knowledge of this technique and its place in Danish heritage, as well as her lifelong efforts to keep alive many other Danish traditions, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Mrs. Overgaard a 1998 National Heritage Fellowship. Overgaard's daughters Karma Sorensen and Annette Andersen continue this tradition in their community and are passing it on to their grandchildren. TOP
While the Danish Folk High Schools did teach many traditions to another generation, most Danes learned about their heritage in their families, their churches, and in their close-knit communities. Celebrations were and are an especially important time of year to foster Danish foods, music, and dance.
Christmas or Jul means a bountiful family dinner, which includes æbleskiver, a special apple batter bread, served along with gløgg, a hot punch made with red wine, brandy or schnapps, raisins and almonds. Traditional Christmas cookies include vanilla wreaths, klejner (deep-fried cakes), pepper nuts, and white-iced honey cakes in a variety of shapes, sometimes used as Christmas decorations. The traditional Christmas lunch includes a variety of smørrebrod made with thin-sliced rye and whole grain breads, topped by artistically arranged bits of herring, smoked fish, sausage, eggs, ham, and pickled beets.
Many Danes decorate their Christmas tree with fruits, sweets, candles, and small Danish flags. Intricate papirklip (paper cutting) decorations, such as the Christmas heart, an interwoven paper heart often made of red and white paper, the colours of the Danish flag, also adorn trees or are hung as mobiles. In Elk Horn and Kimballton today, Annette Andersen creates papirklip designs for Christmas cards, as well as a variety of mobiles and house decorations.
Birthdays and weddings also provide occasions for traditional foods. One of the best-loved foods is the kransekage, a delicate almond filled pastry baked in rings. The rings are stacked to look like a tree or mountain and then decorated with white icing and Danish flags. Served on a special platter, kransekage is eaten from the bottom up to preserve its pyramid-like appearance. TOP
Music and Dance
In Denmark, Danish folk music has been influenced a good deal by central European music; in the United States and in Iowa, old time music via Missouri and the upland South as well as old time Scandinavian and polka bands have had an impact. The traditional instruments are violin, accordion, clarinet and other wind instruments, which are most often played for dancing polkas, waltzes and rheinlænders. Tunes are often connected to a particular dance, whether a couple dance, a circle dance, or a circle dance by combinations of paired couples. Elk Horn's Danish Folk Dancers perform and teach a variety of these traditional dances at regional events and for social occasions. Dwight Lamb of Onawa, awarded an Iowa Arts Award in the late nineties, plays not only old time tunes but Danish tunes as well on
his fiddle and button accordion. A fourth-generation musician, he learned numerous tunes from his Danish grandfather as well as early radio musician Uncle Bob Walters and fiddler/researcher R.P. Christensen. TOP
Text by Riki Saltzman. Photos by Will Thomson & Riki Saltzman. Folk school photograph courtesy of Danish Immigrant Museum