From The World & I, 1995.The full article with all of Bent Lorentzenís photos must be purchased from The World & I††††††††††††††††††††††† [site home]

A Joyful Day


Article #:





File Size:

1,780 words

Issue Date:

7 / 1995

Start Page:



Bent Lorentzen
Bent Lorentzen is president of Danish-American Newsmedia Enterprises, an independent journalism and cultural program located in Towson, Maryland. Lorentzen wishes to thank the Royal Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C., Baltimore's Danish Consulate, Jens Otto Mose's family, the Rebild (Danish) National Park office, the Rebild Society, and the Danish newspapers Jyllandposten and Berlingske Tidende for their help with this article.

By order of a royal declaration dating back nearly a century, Denmark celebrates America's Independence Day in an annual holiday known as Rebild Fest. It is the only foreign nation to do so. This year's celebration promises to be one of history's grandest, according to the Royal Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C., because it will also commemorate Denmark's liberation by the Allies on May 5, 1945.

       "It is certain to be an unprecedented celebration," said a spokesperson for the Sons of Denmark (a Danish-American fraternity). Plans for the 1995 Rebild Fest, confirmed in April, indicate that Lloyd Bentsen, an American of Danish descent and formerly a vice presidential candidate, treasury secretary, and senator for Texas, will represent America at this year's festival. Princess Benedikte is expected to speak on behalf of Denmark's royal house.

       The four-day festival actually commences on July 1 in Aalborg, an ancient shipping city in the north Jutland peninsula, and Rebild, a forested park forty kilometers inland. Thousands of American visitors, many hoping to reacquaint themselves with their Danish roots, will begin to converge on the sites from hotels in the surrounding hills and villages. Then, on July 2, the Danish and American branches of the Rebild Society will meet at Rebild House.

       Various American and Danish schools will cooperatively hold public exhibitions of Danish and American culture. "Brigham Young University in Utah has been helpful in planning cultural and colonial-era events," says Sven Nicolaisen, a D.C.-area architect and vice president of the American Rebild Committee. These are often impromptu exhibitions and ceremonies. According to Nicolaisen, "Native American dances and folk dancing [will] occur."

       Historians bill Rebild Fest as the largest single celebration of America's Independence, even dwarfing those within the States. "It was begun by Max Henius, a Dane who immigrated to the United States around 1895 but who returned in 1912 to find his roots," explains Niels Selling, secretary-general of the Rebild National Park. "With other Danes he purchased undeveloped forested land in these hills and deeded it to King Christian X, asking him, on behalf of the royal house, to preserve it in its natural state so that the U.S. Independence Day could be celebrated by Danes. It has stayed so ever since, the Fourth of July being celebrated every year except during the German occupation." Indeed, in 1946, forty-five thousand gathered to celebrate the first Rebild Fest of the postwar era.

       Process of the Rebild Fest

        For the past twenty years, the U.S. Air Force band from Wiesbaden, Germany, has appeared in the quaint city of Aalborg for a series of concerts commencing at the Hvide Hus (White House) Hotel on July 3. Also at the hotel, Aalborg's mayor honors an American of Danish roots by appointing him "mayor of the day." Usually, the keynote American speakers--last year they were Attorney General Janet Reno and the American ambassador to Denmark--participate in most of the day's functions and dinners, including the annual initiations into the King Christian IV Guild.

       Deep beneath Jens Bang House (across the street from Budolfi Church in Aalborg) in a 1624 wine cellar constructed of bricks that form classic arches, dignitaries and royalty are inducted into a guild established during World War II. Now linked with the Rebild Fest, the guild is a tribute to international commerce and freedom of expression. Commerce is celebrated because Christian IV, whose motto, Piety Reforms the Realms, helped transform Copenhagen from a medieval town to a center of European trade in the 1600s; freedom is honored because the wine cellar served as a secret center of expression, via a press, which remained undiscovered by the Gestapo.

       By dawn's early light on the Fourth, the usually desolate hills of Rebild have taken on a calm air of anticipation. At 8:00 a.m. in Aalborg, a service--with a full color guard from the Danish and American armed services--commemorates the Allied liberation of 1945 at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

       After a 9:00 a.m. interdenominational service at Aalborg Cathedral, there is another initiation at the wine cellar for those who could not be included the previous day. Then a caravan of several hundred travels the one-hour drive south and descends on Rebild to join the thousands gathering from all corners of the globe.

       As the morning progresses, a circus-sized tent not far from the Log Cabin American Museum serves a luncheon to guests of honor. Last year, five hundred participated. During this two-hour affair, a festive atmosphere of song and dance is punctuated by toasts, even from royalty, as people approach the podium to donate money and become lifetime members of the Rebild Society.

       At 2:00 p.m., deep in a natural amphitheaterlike valley--with thousands sitting on the hillsides--the dignitaries take their seats at a temporary stand. A poignant silence resounds: Some have said that even the forest's abundant songbirds still their voices. A replica of the Liberty Bell is rung, and Rebild Fest is declared officially open.

       Following an invocation by the bishop of Aalborg, a huge Danish flag is hoisted to the accompaniment of the Danish national anthem. Then an equally impressive Stars and Stripes is hoisted as the Air Force band induces the thousands to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner." The two flags, approximately twenty by forty feet in size, require twelve soldiers each to raise. Following introductions by the president of the Rebild Society, representatives of the Danish and American governments take the podium to speak. Throughout the afternoon, folk, classical, military, and modern music blend unpretentiously to please most musical palates.

       By 4:00 p.m., the festival in Rebild draws to a close, but celebration continues with renewed fervor in Aalborg. Many of the ensuing ceremonies are cosponsored by the Aalborg Chamber of Commerce. Ceremonies include a torchlight concert behind the White House Hotel and another round of invocations by guest speakers at a dinner, during which the keys to Aalborg are presented to the mayor of the day.

       Last year, Hakon Andersen, owner of Andersen's Nursery near Los Angeles, received the honor for his contribution toward Danish-American cooperative culture and commerce. "I brought many young people over from Denmark for a year," said the 71-year-old entrepreneur, "to teach them our business and for them to teach Americans about Denmark."

       "Queen Margrethe often is the featured Danish speaker," says Jens Otto Mose, Maryland's preeminent Dane according to Tim McNamara, Baltimore's knighted Danish consul. "Except when it was impossible to do so, there has always been someone at Rebild on the Fourth with a message from the U.S. president," he adds, explaining that generally an American battleship docks in Aalborg to host a state dinner.

       The 1994 celebration

        In a July 4, 1994, telephone interview, Selling hurriedly described the scene even as the "Star Spangled Banner" competed in the background. "It is so nice. Janet Reno is about to speak, and the princess will follow. Right now, I am hearing your Air Force band playing."

       According to Jyllandposten, an Aalborg local newspaper, ten thousand celebrants from all over the world had gathered on an unusually hot morning to celebrate. In previous years, the celebration had been marred by relatively peaceful protests against Danish domestic or American foreign policy. This was especially evident in the 1983 celebration when Vice President George Bush was heckled by a small group of students protesting his past activities as CIA director. Media attention is easily accessed because Rebild Fest is an open forum where representatives of the Danish and American governments converge. In 1994, a Jyllandposten journalist noted: "This is the first time in many years that Rebild Fest was entirely a joyful day without a single disruptive protest."

       After the traditional opening ceremonies, keynote speaker Reno took the podium. In her message, the attorney general reflected on her Danish ancestry. Upon immigrating to America, Reno's Danish father thought the family name, Rasmussen, sounded a little awkward. Looking at a U.S. map, he found a city in Nevada that began with the letter R, hence the name Reno. The attorney general spoke of a world community, virtually without borders, learning to coexist during a time of unprecedented global migration: "I vividly remember the wafting aroma of Danish coffee as [her grandmother] spoke soothing words to me. For me, the Danish people will always represent kindness and a concern for the general welfare of all people."

       She went on to describe the Danish underground's work during World War II, getting Jews out of occupied Denmark into neutral Sweden. "This [Danish] history of justice for all serves as an example for the world, and I am proud of my Danish ancestry," she continued. "As America's attorney general, I must calmly seek justice for everyone regardless of race or religion. I consider this the paramount mission of my life."

       Following the festival, Reno visited her extended family in Odense, the Danish community of her ancestry. But according to Berlingske Tidende, a Copenhagen newspaper, there had been some doubt as to the possibility of Reno's appearance, because of conflicting Justice Department priorities. Apparently, President Clinton had wanted her to remain in Washington to work on the Brady gun bill being debated in Congress last July. Fortunately, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, Edward Elson, was able to persuade the president and attorney general of the importance of Rebild Fest: "Several thousand Danes are expected to travel to the remote park to celebrate America's Independence, in the largest Fourth of July celebration outside the United States," he argued.

       Elson, in his address, brought a warm greeting to Rebild Fest celebrants from President Clinton. Reno's Danish counterpart, Minister of Justice Erling Olsen, responded on behalf of the Danish government: "America's celebration of its independence has significance far beyond America. It is an important landmark for all civilized nations to look toward."

       In her address, Princess Benedikte spoke of the nearly 300,000 Danes who have become Americans: "It is my humble duty to preserve this Danish tradition of celebrating America's independence, which was precisely why Max Henius led an organization of Danish Americans to acquire this Rebild Park and deed it to the royal house.

       "In this coming year, Denmark will be more closely tied with the rest of Europe [by the Maastricht Treaty]," she continued. "To bring about prosperity by nourishing our ties with the USA is not a sign of weakness--on the contrary. But this has not been understood by everyone. Rebild's intent cannot survive on the basis of nostalgia alone. The younger generation of Denmark and America must be motivated toward responsibility and strength as a community among our native lands. ... It is a true delight to see our youth and elders entering into an accord here at this Rebild Fest."

       In that spirit, I fondly remember attending the 1972 Rebild Fest while studying at the Folk University of Copenhagen. Danny Kaye, on an overcast day that perhaps foreshadowed a presidency about to be washed out or the recent passing of King Frederick IX, delivered a compelling letter from Richard Nixon. With a small Vietnam protest taking place in the background (Denmark was a refuge for Vietnam War deserters in the early 1970s), Queen Margrethe cheered America as an unwavering bastion of liberty through so much world conflict.