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How Danish People Celebrate America's Independence

Rebildfest is a century-old festival of American independence... in Denmark.

by Áine Pennello
06 July 2016, 4:00am

Danish and American flags fly above the main stage at Rebildfest in Rebild, Denmark. All photos by Skyler Reid

Every Fourth of July weekend, the town of Rebild is awash in red, white, and blue. There are star-spangled shirts and socks; soldiers hoist the American flag while people sing the national anthem, played by a youth band. Children in face paint run back and forth, stopping only to look up as fighter jets swoosh overhead. But this isn't the US, or even Canada. This is rural Denmark.

Since 1912, thousands of Danes (plus Americans, Danish-Americans, and American Danes) have come to the hills of Rebild in northern Denmark to celebrate the Fourth of July in what is supposedly the largest celebration of America's Independence abroad. The four-day festival, called Rebildfest, is a bizarre clash of Danish and American traditions: schnapps and hot dogs, Danish songs and American folk tunes, burgers and beer and pickled herring.

Organizers estimated that about 2,000 people came out to the Rebildfest hills for this year's Fourth of July celebration.

Although Rebildfest is seemingly set in the middle of nowhere—exit the highway, take a left at the second cattle farm, and drive straight past the sheep—it's hosted an impressive list of American celebrities: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney, and Walter Cronkite have all attended, according to the Rebild National Park Society, the Danish American organization that hosts the annual festival. Even President Obama addressed the crowd this year in a letter read aloud by the American ambassador to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, who doubles as the star of a Danish reality TV show, Jeg er ambassadoren fra Amerika, or The American Ambassador.

United States Ambassador Rufus Gifford addresses the crowd during Rebildfest.

But despite its popularity past and present, Rebildfest is facing a number of challenges: aging members, dwindling financial resources, and a struggle to stay relevant with younger generations that don't seem to connect to the American dream like their great-great grandparents did.

"Denmark is kind of boring, but I'm happy here." — Celine Larsen

Attendees sing songs during the Rebild National Park Society's Tent Lunch at Rebild Park, ahead of the day's Rebildfest programming.

Between the mid 1800s and early 1900s, thousands of Danes immigrated to America, a place rich with opportunity and cheap land. Certain immigrants who filed an intent to become an American citizen could get a 160-acre plot of land from the government for just $14 under the Homestead Act of 1862, which made relocation an easy sell. Even Max Henius, the son of a Danish schnapps magnate and founder of Rebildfest, immigrated to America in the late 1800s. Later, using money raised by Danes in America, he bought a 140-acre plot of land in the picturesque hills of Rebild and gave it to the Danish government with stipulations that it be open for Danish-born Americans and their families to celebrate American holidays.

The flags for America's 50 states (and one Danish flag) line the path down to Rebildfest's main staging ground.

Today, the Danish view of America is not quite as romantic. The younger generations of Danes gawk at the gun violence, obstructionist politics, and a constantly growing wealth gap in America. Denmark, by contrast, is consistently rated as having one of the lowest levels of economic inequality in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Danish citizens enjoy free healthcare, five weeks of paid vacation time, and stipends to attend tuition-free universities.

"It's so crazy to us," said Celine Larsen, a 20-year-old Danish student, about life in America. "Denmark is kind of boring, but I'm happy here."

"For my generation, [going to the US] is more about getting to know the culture," said Victoria Due, 17, who just returned to her native Denmark after a year as an exchange student at a high school in Medford, Oregon. "All of us teenagers, we know America for the Kardashians and all of these famous names," Due told me. "But for my dad's generation, it was more known for being the greater power."

Related: The Way to Make America Great Again is to Be More Like Scandinavia

The Rebild National Park Society is fighting the disillusionment with America in order to bring in newer, younger members and sustain itself into the future—including the annual Fourth of July festival.

"The number of members is falling," Jesper Jespersen, the society's president, told VICE. "It's difficult to get in to the third or fourth generation."

Attendees watch the speakers and performances during the Rebild National Park Society's Tent Lunch at Rebild Park, ahead of the day's Rebildfest programming.

One of their options includes a renewed focus on business ties between Denmark and the US. Apple, for example, is currently investing in a new European data center in northern Denmark, and Jespersen says they hope to attract Apple CEO Tim Cook to the festival.

And despite some skepticism about where the US is headed, the fascination with American culture is still strong. In the nearby city of Aalborg, there's a Highway 66 restaurant, an American Dream restaurant, and a Friends-themed cafe with a menu offering Joey's XXL burger.

Armen Rasmussen and Ella Marie Rasmussen from Aalborg, Tina Hülke from Herning, and Barbara Man from Philadelphia watch the Rebildfest speeches and entertainment.

But more than just celebrating American culture, the festival is also a place where Danish and American friends and families can reunite. The Bjerregard family, whose Danish members still own land nearby, numbered 18 this year—14 Americans, three Danes, and one British husband—all of whom wore red baseball-caps with the words "Pilgrimage to Denmark." Another reunion numbered 20-odd people, two of whom were from New Jersey, with their husbands and babies in tow. Together, they took up the entire side of one of the venue's smaller hills.

"It's about personal relationships, it's not about governments," Gifford, the American ambassador to Denmark, told me. "That's what makes it special, and that's what's allowed it to stand the test of time."

Follow Áine Pennello on Twitter.

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