Lindsborg was booked. The entire town. Not a single room to be found in this small city of 3,400 (the most populous it has ever been). What was happening here, in the middle of Kansas, that made it say, “We’re full”? It was Svensk Hyllningsfest, of course, the Swedish Honoring Festival that is celebrated in the autumn of every other year. And if you want to stay in town for the two-day affair, start looking for accommodations many months in advance. (I tried, to no avail, and I ended up staying in Salina, 20 miles north.)
I have always been fascinated by everything Swedish, so when I learned that Lindsborg, also known as “Little Sweden USA,” was holding its biennial festival right in the middle of my jaunt through Kansas and Oklahoma, I made sure to dedicate an entire day to it.
About 35 percent of Lindsborg’s population claims Swedish heritage. And if it’s noteworthy enough for Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf to have visited it in 1976, you know it’s deserving of some exploration. Every other year since 1941 the town celebrates its Swedish roots with a festival. I knew I was in for a treat from the moment I arrived, when I parked my rental car across the street from a distinctively red Swedish-looking house that had been built in Sweden and shipped to Kansas. Admission to the festival is free, and I picked up a program by the City Hall, built in 1887 as a bank and subsequently used as a pharmacy, telephone office, coffee shop, harness shop, and barber shop. I planned to spend the day here, enjoying Swedish dancing, music, food, and crafts, but I ended up enjoying so much more than all that.
The Main Stage and stands had been set up at the main intersection of the town, a cobblestone crossing without traffic lights. Locals were already performing Swedish dances, so I took a seat among the crowd and watched lots of blond adults dancing with assured footsteps in traditional garb. Although the blue and yellow colors of the original costumes (taken from the colors of the Swedish flag) have been expanded to the full spectrum over the decades, the outfits largely remain the same. The men donned long-sleeve white shirts under a waistcoat, knee breeches, and knitted stockings, the colors and designs of which vary, depending on the wearer’s region of origin in Sweden. The women were dressed in long-sleeve white blouses under a bodice, long skirts, and aprons, again with variety determined by region.
After this early-morning performance, I perused the program to plan my day while devouring breakfast at the outdoor food court: Swedish pancakes with syrup, butter, and sweet lingonberries, and sausage. Next to me, Swedish-Americans from Iowa had made the trek for the festival, as did the couple from Stockholm one table over. I had some time before the next event I wanted to attend, so I strolled around this charming town of mostly two-story structures (except for its tallest, the grain silo), founded in 1869 by a group of immigrants from Sweden’s Värmland region. I passed by the Victorian bed and breakfast that had been fully booked half a year before the festival and the requisite Lutheran church. Lovely street art dotted around town includes painted tiles set in iron frames, a painting of Our Fathers in Architectural Heaven, and a mural of Saint Lucy’s Day, with girls in white dresses with red satin sashes, wearing wreath crowns of candles, and boys with starred magician hats. The sign for the public restrooms is a piece of folk art, with a man and woman in traditional costume, including wooden clogs, and the Old World phone booths are painted blue and yellow.
After watching middle schoolers perform more dances and listening to them on their brass, percussion, and woodwind instruments under the direction of their conductor, I started hunting for Lindsborg’s most iconic street art in the core of the town: the Dala horses. These traditionally wooden hand-carved and -painted horses were originally made because people needed something to break up their boredom. Folks in Dalarna, Sweden, had nothing else to do in the early 1800s after laboring all day, so they used wood scraps from local industries to make toys. Since then, they’ve become a symbol of Sweden, and I was finding them all over town, in a range of sizes, from the name tags the performers were wearing to the sign outside the post office to Christmas tree ornaments in shop windows and especially to the four-foot-tall fiberglass statues along the sidewalks. Creatively painted and cleverly titled, these utterly delightful pieces of art are guaranteed to make you smile. “Kronor, the Dolla Horse” is painted like a U.S. one-dollar bill. “Herd It Through the Grapevine” is awash with grapes and vines, while a chessboard and symbols of the pieces adorn “The Good Knight Dala,” appropriately located outside the chess center. My favorite, “Salvador Dala,” features Dali’s face on the horse’s face and his surreal art on its flanks and limbs.
More music followed at the Main Stage, including the Swedish national anthem and Kansas’ state song (“Home on the Range”). Young, fresh-faced, lower-grade schoolchildren, adorably dressed in their costumes, performed their dances in a circle, boys and girls awkwardly holding hands but clearly having a wonderful time. It all led up to one of the highlights of the day: the crowning of the festival’s king and queen. Flouting society’s ageism, the chosen royals has passed the 50-year milestone a few years back—prominent citizens of the town and fine representatives who would serve the festival and Lindsborg well.
I purchased some trinkets at the well-stocked, year-round, all-Nordic store (with everything from Icelandic chocolate to Swedish cookbooks, Finnish flag windsocks to Danish iron candleholders and Norwegian broches) before popping into the old J.O. Sundstrom Department Store, now a conference center that was set up for the festival and for craft vendors to sell their wares, including a package of illustrated cards for “The Twelve Days of Christmas”—Swedish style: Ten Lars a’ Leaping, for instance.
The senior citizen center was hosting a food demonstration, so I squeezed my way into the back row of a packed crowd to see what was cooking. A delightfully quirky older woman, who reminded me of an even loopier Julia Child, was preparing a Swedish tea ring, a sweet bread with icing that almost seems more like a cake, largely believed to have originated as part of grand Swedish Christmas feasts. Recipes vary, but my cook today was using cherries and sliced almonds. As she worked, she regaled us with tales of her family (who were in attendance) while tossing off less-than-precise culinary cues, from just throwing in “some” sugar to “not caring if we used butter or margarine.” She wrapped it up by offering samples—a delicious blend of fruit, nuts, sugar, milk, butter, and a handful of additional ingredients.
With my appetite piqued by my sample, I picked up some Swedish street food—a Viking on a Stick: three fried Swedish meatballs on a skewer between three pieces of bread—and headed back to the Main Stage for the final performances of the day, with high school students as the stars. These teenagers had rehearsed well, executing traditional dances for couples and groups, just for the girls, and just for the guys. The latter proved particularly skillful and complicated. Two swords are crossed on the ground, forming four sectors. One boy steps into the grid and moves around to each section, never brushing or stepping on the swords. He is then joined by a second, and they continue their revolutions around. Soon, a third, and then a fourth boy have joined in, all four moving simultaneously from one quadrant to the next, the swords never grazed by their complex footsteps, until one by one they drop out, leaving the swords in the same position as when they began.
I was sorry that I wasn’t going to be able to attend the parade the next day, but my travel plans took me elsewhere. Nevertheless, a day in Swedish Kansas was just the perfect amount—lagom—to enjoy two blended cultures in the great outdoors. Skål!
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