The Adventure of Finding Your Heritage

By Heidi Herman-Kerr |

Where are you from? It’s a common enough question. It’s asked a thousand times a day, usually as an icebreaker between strangers. In the United States, the typical answer is a state or metropolitan region. “I’m from Minnesota” or “I live in Los Angeles.”

In casual conversation, seldom are you asked, “where are your ancestors from?” You may or may not even know the answer. For some, that ancestral connection is passed down from parents and grandparents, along with a sense of cultural identity. For others, it was simply never brought up, and it still doesn’t seem important.

But for many others, it’s a question that begs to be answered. The numerous online resources dedicated to genealogy and ancestral research, as well as the ease of DNA testing, have made it almost effortless to uncover the first kernels of information. From there, the search for ancestors can become fun. Research turns names in a log book into real people. You can start to connect with them and learn their stories.

Something clicks. This link to the past brings a sense of belonging, of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. It helps us connect with others by finding common ground and helps us build our own sense of identity. But it can also be a source of hope. Uncovering the stories of blood ancestors, discovering their challenges, failures, and triumphs along with their determination can make the overcoming the challenges of today seem possible. Many of our ancestors faced famine, flood, volcanic eruption, and other factors that played heavily into their immigration story

The path of discovery begins with knowing your heritage, but where do you start to learn about the culture? In the United States, there are many organizations for cultural education and heritage preservation. The Icelandic National League of the United States is one of those, joining the ranks of other Scandinavian heritage clubs like the Sons of Norway, the Danish American Heritage Society, the VASA Order of America, and the Finlandia Foundation National, to name a few.

These organizations provide a connection to the ancestral homeland, whether through photos or organized trips. Appreciation for the land is a great place to start, whether visualizing the landscape and imagining your ancestors living there, or taking a trip to experience it first-hand. We might be biased, but we think Iceland is one of those countries you absolutely must visit to experience.

To truly embrace the culture, you’ll definitely want to taste it. Food is an element that is fundamental to many cultures. Of all the senses, smell has a stronger link to memory and emotion than any other, which is why certain aromas bring a feeling of comfort or nostalgia. Embracing the food of a culture can help bring close emotional ties and a feeling of family. One of the most common Icelandic foods is a kleinur, with origins dating back to the 18th Century. Kleinur is enjoyed year-round in Iceland but is reserved as a holiday treat in other Scandinavian countries.

Appreciation of the food might lead to learning a few new words because the unique and unusual names of food starts teaching you the basics of the language. But it doesn’t stop there. Next, you might gain appreciation and interest in the unique literature, art, and music. Becoming involved in a heritage organization can open up a whole new world of experiences and new traditions. Icelandic heritage brings us the mid-winter celebration of Þorrablót, Midsummer festivals in June, and the annual arrival of Jólasveinar – the Icelandic Yule Lad trolls of Christmas. Many of these traditions do not hold the same meaning today, and they once did, but are held in honor of the heritage and what they meant to our ancestors. Those customs and attitudes play into our modern-day attitudes and continue to be part of current culture. Who doesn’t remember the underdog 2018 Icelandic football – the famous HÚH!, and Icelandic Viking Clap? Everyone wanted to be Icelandic then.

Looking back and learning of our heritage help us define who were are today, and sometimes we find surprising connections. Some common English words have their origins in Nordic – Icelandic – culture. In Norse mythology one of the most revered gods was Odin (Óðinn), which in English became Woden, and eventually became Wednesday. Thursday is Thor’s day, the Nordic god of strength and storms, and Friday was named after Frigg, the Nordic goddess of marriage.

Through these and other examples, we can see elements of Scandinavian culture in America today and we celebrate the Icelandic contribution. When we embrace our heritage, it’s a way of looking to the past to understand the present and better face the future.

Want to learn more? Contact us to find a local Icelandic clubs or information about Scandinavian events in your area.