It’s the local celebration you probably haven’t heard about before.
But Leif Erikson Day is celebrated October 8 in Westby now, along with the community’s annual Syttende Mai festival every May.
Both events are tied to the heritage of the settlers in that area: Syttende Mai commemorates Norway’s Constitution Day and offers a host of Norwegian food and traditions; and Leif Erikson Day recognizes a Norse explorer who many scholars believe was the first European known to have set foot in America in the year 1000.
No matter if you are Norwegian, Scandinavian or any other heritage, here are five things to know about Leif Erikson and Leif Erickson Day in Westby:
1) No, it’s not Leif Garrett.
I may be revealing too much about my age, but when I heard about this event for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about Leif Garrett. He was one of my first teen-age heartthrobs, and I couldn’t get enough of him in my Tiger Beat I looked for images online of Leif Erikson to see if he bore any resemblance to the smiley, long-hair, open-shirt Leif Garrett I idolized in my youth. The images I found were Viking-looking statues of him located in various cities of the world including in St. Paul, Minn. Leif Erikson looks very serious. I doubt he spent much time doing non-serious things like Leif Garrett.
2) Erikson apparently beat Christopher Columbus to the punch.
When you write about people who lived more than 1000 years ago, it’s hard to be sure of the details due to lack of records. Even Erikson’s last name is spelled differently depending who is writing about him. According to some 13th-century literature, Erikson sailed from Greenland to Norway to spread Christianity and got lost on the way home. His ship stopped on dry ground at a place he named, “Vinland,” and many scholars believe it was probably Nova Scotia. Since then (in 1963), an 11th-century Viking settlement was discovered in that area and more than 2,000 Viking objects have been found there. So far, it is the oldest European settlement found on North America. However, the stop that Erikson made didn’t result in large-scale colonization, which is probably why Christopher Columbus received the credit for discovering America.
3) Play Viking chess.
One of the activities of the Westby celebration is Kubb, which apparently was played by the Vikings and is also called “Viking chess.” The pictures I’ve seen of this game show people throwing wooden stick pieces called “hasselsticks” at smaller pieces of wood that have been set up on grassy areas outdoors. It’s a game that can be played by all ages because it is essentially throwing sticks at targets. Games can last as little as five minutes or go on for more than an hour. People all over the world play Kubb and there are tournaments in many countries. Interesting fact: The U.S. National Kubb Championship is held in Eau Claire, Wis., and the winning team this year is made up of people from Wisconsin and Iowa.
4) The Lefse Contest.
When you think of Westby and its Norwegian settlers, you also might think about lefse. This potato and flour flatbread is a traditional Norwegian food, and it must be in the blood of these people as I know some locals of Norwegian heritage who crave it even many generations later. Westby’s celebration includes a lefse-making contest, and I imagine there are many people around who would be willing to judge it.
5) People celebrate this day nationally.
In 1964, U.S. Congress authorized the president to proclaim October 9 of each year “Leif Erikson Day.” All the presidents since, including President Obama, have done so to recognize this explorer, along with this country’s Nordic-American heritage. Sure, it isn’t a federal holiday like Columbus Day on October 10, but my guess is this will change over time due to protests that Columbus was a ruthless racist who shouldn’t be celebrated. The Washington Post reports that Berkeley, Calif., replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day more than 20 years ago to honor the original inhabitants of the Caribbean islands where Columbus landed and ruled. South Dakota now calls the holiday “Native American Day,” Hawaii calls it “Discovery Day” and Alabama celebrates a combination “Columbus Day/American Indian Heritage Day.”
Anastasia Penchi is graduate of UW-La Crosse and a long-time Coulee Region writer who has written for area newspapers and magazines (www.loislaneforhire.com).