It’s a pretty day in Thousand Oaks, California, just outside Los Angeles, and the campus of Cal Lutheran University is open and welcoming. Set against the nearby mountains, it’s a lovely oasis in the heart of suburbia, full of green spaces, blooming flowers, and meandering pathways. But I’m not here to see the university. I am here for the 45th Annual Scandinavian Festival.
Thousand Oaks might seem like a strange place for such an event. For those familiar with Southern California, Thousand Oaks is recognizable as a wealthy suburb, where houses start in seven figures. It is home to upscale shopping, fine dining, and the world headquarters of Amgen. But a Scandinavian festival?
However, if you dig a bit deeper, the history of Thousand Oaks is a story based out of Norway. Karen Ashim is the President of the local Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation, and I am lucky enough to speak with her ahead of the festival for some background. She tells me that in 19th century Norway, the eldest son would inherit the family farm or business. This left other children with no inheritance, and little prospect for having their own families, or accumulating wealth. In the 1890s, five of these “later-born” sons set out for Southern California, where they bought several hundred acres of land in what is now Thousand Oaks. It was poor farmland (the lower and more fertile land of what is now Camarillo and Oxnard wasn’t available or affordable to them) so they grew hay, wheat, and barley.
Needing a way to get their crops to market, the five hand carved a route down the mountain to the lower land, and shipping at Port Hueneme. That route became known as the Norwegian Grade – and it still exists today. The five would have large families, and while three of the men died by 1901, the community was able to sustain. In the 1960s, the Lutheran Church, desperate for a place to build a university, approached one of the families. The Pedersons donated the land, and Cal Lutheran was born.
While today, little of the original Scandinavian community can be found in Thousand Oaks beyond the names of Norwegian Grade, Pederson Road, and Olsen Road, its spirit lives on in the form of Karen and her organization, and the Scandinavian Festival, forty-five years strong (with a break for Covid). And here at Cal Lutheran, although the student body is no longer primarily Lutheran of Scandinavian descent, there is still a strong presence, especially among faculty.
The Scandinavian Festival is a lovely mixture of cultural demonstrations, hands-on activities, shopping, and, of course, food. My day begins with a game of Kubb, a Viking game in which one throws wooden dowels (underhand and no helicoptering) at blocks, trying to knock them down. I prove to be decent at it, a huge surprise for anyone who knows me and my astounding lack of ability at pretty much anything athletic or sporting.
It is time for food, and the Scandinavian Festival has a wide range, from the normal kettle corn and such to regional specialties. I opt for the latter, and determine to try pretty much everything. Swedish meatballs? Why yes, I’ll have some. Viking dog? Sure! (It’s a Scandinavian sausage made with potato, and quite good.) Lingonberry drink? Indeed. And then some lingonberry cookies. Plus, of course, the mighty aebleskiver, a Danish spherical pancake, fluffy in its majesty and served with jam. (You’ll remember these from Solvang.)
I eat while standing and watching cooking demonstrations, specifically of aebelskiver and traditional conical cookies. It is truly a joy to watch local members of the Scandinavian community demonstrate their family recipes for these treats.
Other demonstrations include music, dancers, and crafts. I stop by a booth showing off bobbin lace, a fairly intricate weaving of lace out of colored thread. Experts are standing by to help visitors try a few rows for themselves. I stand and watch, but it looks like a good time.
Crafts are a common theme here at the Scandinavian Festival. Some are for sale, like cool wood carvings and pewter bracelets with Viking runes. Others are meant for kids. Each child is given a passport book, with facts about each of the five countries represented here (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland), to get stamped at those countries’ booths. Each offers a craft for the children to do as well, from making a paper reindeer to a chalk aurora borealis. Elsewhere, children and adults alike weave flower headdresses. By noon, it seems more are wearing them than not around the grounds.
I am amazed at how many people are wearing either traditional Scandinavian outfits or shirts/hats advertising a country, presumably one of their heritage. Karen tells me the festival tends to be around 50% those of Scandinavian heritage and 50% those who, like me, are just fans or want to learn more. And for those who want to dress up but don’t have their own stuff, there is a booth to try on some Viking costumes for photos. Or check out the Viking encampment to try on real chain mail while watching weavers ply their trade or storytellers tell of the Norse gods.
After making a full circuit – and then another to make sure I didn’t miss anything – I take a few minutes to walk around the Cal Lutheran campus and into Samuelson Chapel. The Lutheran Church is one of the most progressive, and this beautiful – truly beautiful – chapel is made all the more impressive by being decked out for Pride Month. I fist bump a minister (a first for me) and admire the stained glass before returning to my car.
Sometimes, all it takes to travel to another country is a short drive. Today, I had that chance, experiencing the best of Scandinavia right here in Southern California. This year’s Scandinavian Festival might be done, but it will be back, and you, too, can journey to Northern Europe here in Thousand Oaks.
Thank you so much to the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation for sponsoring my admission to the festival. I had a blast!
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