By Raiza Giorgi

Photos by Aaron Villa

When Gillian Nielsen got the news from the Solvang Danish Days committee that she had been selected as this year’s Danish Maid, she could hardly contain her excitement.

“I was sitting there listening as they were describing all the duties and activities that I would be participating in, and all I wanted to do was jump up and down and celebrate,” said Gillian, 17.

Danish Days celebrates the history and culture of Denmark, including folk dancing.

The Danish heritage festival returns for its 83rd anniversary on the weekend of Sept. 20-22.

Since its modest beginnings in 1936, when a one-day celebration commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Solvang colony’s founding in 1911 was conceived, Danish Days has evolved into a weekend-long festival showcasing the village’s heritage. The annual event includes authentic food, music, dancing, parades, live entertainment and family activities.

The aebleskiver-eating contest is one of the food highlights of Danish Days, as competitors show how many of the pancake balls they can eat — hands-free — in five minutes.

The 2019 Solvang Danish Days theme – “A Salute to Denmark’s Flag: Celebrating 800 Years of Dannebrog” – will showcase the nation’s 800-year-old flag, called “Dannebrog,” which is the world’s oldest national flag, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Gillian, a senior at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, said that she has been waiting for this day since she was a little girl, as her family has been participating in Danish Days since before she was born.

Gillian’s family’s path to Solvang began more than a century ago in 1898, when her great-great-great-grandfather, lumberman Andrew Johnson, left a small village in Sweden for the U.S. in search of a better life for his family.

In 1953, Andrew’s great-granddaughter, Marion Hanson, met Gillian’s grandfather, Alton Nielsen, in Solvang. Alton was the second son of Danish immigrant C.V. Nielsen, a carpenter who landed in Solvang in 1917, and Anna Roth, whose family had moved to Solvang from Ferndale, Calif., in 1911.

C.V. and Anna were married in Solvang in 1920 and had three children, Daryl, Alton and Thora Mae.

In 1948, C.V. founded the family business, Nielsen Building Materials, which Alton, his older brother Daryl, and C.V. continued to build. As time went on, Daryl and Alton were joined by Thora’s husband, Andy Andersen. Andersen’s son Ken Andersen – Gillian’s father’s cousin – would eventually become Nielsen Building Materials’ manager, a position which he still holds.

In 2006, at the age of three, Gillian moved to Solvang with her family – parents Chris and Diane Nielsen, and her older twin brothers, Ben and Kyle – after her father retired from the U.S. Marines with a rank of lieutenant colonel. Chris is a Solvang native, making Gillian a fourth-generation Santa Ynez Valley resident.

“Growing up watching my cousins and second cousins being Danish Maid, I am so glad that our line of Nielsens finally gets to represent the title,” Gillian said.

Mike and Martha Nedegaard, shown here serving an aebleskiver breakfast, are among dozens of longtime supporters of Danish Days.

Her favorite part of Danish Days is cooking the aebleskiver breakfast with her family and close friends, because they get to spend time together and continue the Danish culture.

“Cooking aebleskiver, you get to eat the first ones because they are always the ‘rejects,’ because it takes a few to get the pans warmed up,” Gillian laughed.

She has also loved walking in the Danish Days parade, usually holding the “Velkomen” (Welcome) sign at the beginning of the parade.

“Keeping these traditions alive and passing down the culture is the most important thing we can do,” she said.

In addition to being Danish Maid, Gillian Nielsen is a member of the varsity cheerleading squad at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.

Aside from being Danish Maid, Gillian is also on the high school’s varsity cheerleading squad and is looking forward to her senior year.

Gillian’s post-graduation plans include potentially studying communications and sales at Boise State. She also hopes to enlist in the Marine Corps as an officer, following in the footsteps of her father, with an eventual goal of having a career in public relations.