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Festival Of Nations

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Original poster from the 1936 Festival of Nations

Original poster from the 1936 Festival of Nations, sponsored by the International Institute in St. Paul. The 1936 event was the first called the “Festival of Nations.”

The International Institute of Minnesota created the Festival of Nations in 1936 to celebrate the ethnicities and cultures of people living in Minnesota. Since then, the event has grown to reflect the increasing diversity of the state.

From its founding in 1919, the International Institute of Minnesota encouraged nationality groups to meet and connect with people who shared their cultures. These groups met in the “club rooms” at the St. Paul Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). The institute also hosted events to bring people from different cultural groups together.

In 1932, the institute held the first three-day “Homelands Exhibits” event at the YWCA. Fifteen nationality groups prepared cultural exhibits and sold ethnic desserts and drinks to the 3,500 visitors who attended. The institute then held a three-day “Folk Festival” at the St. Paul Civic Auditorium in 1934. This festival expanded to include Native Americans and twenty-eight cultural groups.

In 1936, the institute held the first event called “The Festival of Nations,” at the St. Paul Civic Auditorium. Architect Dorothy Ingemann designed a church front as the center of a world village. Decorated facades framed the ethnic and cultural groups’ food booths. This event established a pattern for the festivals that followed, which included cultural exhibits, international food cafes, ethnic dancing, and music performances.

After 1936, each festival was held once every three years. Cultural exhibits were organized around a theme, and participants brought items from their home countries for their cultures’ exhibit booths. Ethnic dance groups formed and practiced at the institute. Volunteers sewed ethnic costumes for the dance groups.

Dorothy Ingemann designed a town hall for the center of the 1939 festival’s International Village. African American Minnesotans first participated in the event during this festival. Crown Prince Frederick and Princess Ingrid of Denmark, who were touring the US, paid a visit.

When the institute held a festival in 1942, during World War II, the organizing committee adapted the event to address wartime concerns. The Germans chose to not participate in the dance program. Some Italians withdrew, but others decided to participate in the dance program. Both groups had exhibits and food booths.” Local clergy offered an interfaith prayer for peace.

There was a five-year break until the festival was held again in 1947, in which Japanese and Japanese Americans participated for the first time. The institute again began hosting the festival every three years starting in 1949. The 1949 festival coincided with the Minnesota Territorial Centennial, telling the story of ethnic groups arriving in Minnesota. Forty-four cultural groups participated.

The 1958 festival celebrated 100 years of Minnesota statehood. It lasted for four days that overlapped with a twelve-day trade exposition. Many state, national, and world leaders, including Princess Astrid of Norway and Prince Bertil of Sweden, attended the event.

Cubans first arrived to live permanently in Minnesota in 1960; four years later they participated in their first festival. Breaking with tradition, the event was held in November twice in that decade: once in 1964 and again in 1967, when its theme was “Nations in Harmony.”

When a project to build the St. Paul Civic Center began in 1970, the institute had to leave its downtown location at Kellogg and Exchange Streets to make room for construction. No festival was held again until 1973, when it was the first major event to be held in the new building. The institute made the Festival of Nations an annual event after 1979.

The 1980 festival included fifty-one ethnic groups, including, for the first time, Hmong and Laotian refugees. In 1983, the festival expanded to allow school groups to visit on Fridays during the school day. 5,000 students came that year. In 1991, Thursdays were added to the festival to allow more student groups to attend during the day.

US immigration laws changed in 1990 to allow more immigrants and refugees to the US, and in 1998, 100 ethnic groups participated in the festival. It was the first festival to be held in the St. Paul RiverCentre, which had been built adjacent to the Civic Center in that year. Refugees from Somalia first participated a year later, in the 1999 festival.

In the 2010s, the festival has evolved while retaining its original elements. In addition to ethnic dance and music performances and international food cafes, there are now bazaars, folk arts demonstrations, and information booths from community organizations. The purpose of the festival remains to build an appreciation of the rich cultural diversity in Minnesota. More than 1,000 volunteers helped run the 2018 festival, which drew 50,000 visitors.

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International Institute of Minnesota records (IHRC 3257)
Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Description: Records (ca. 1920-1971) of the International Institute of Minnesota include minutes of the membership Council and Board of Directors (on microfilm), administrative records, educational program information, department records, materials documenting group services and activities, special programs, projects, and publications, community and national contacts, publicity, music, travel literature, case files, correspondence, photographs, and miscellany.

International Institute of Minnesota records (in-house collection)
International Institute, St. Paul, Minnesota
Description: The collection contains annual reports, newsletters, and scrapbooks documenting the history of the Festival of Nations.

Sickels, Alice L. Around the World in St. Paul. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1945.

Related Images

Original poster from the 1936 Festival of Nations
Original poster from the 1936 Festival of Nations
Booth at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Booth at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Italian folk dancers at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Italian folk dancers at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Hungarian folk dancers at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Hungarian folk dancers at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Greek booth at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Greek booth at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Armenian folk dancers at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Armenian folk dancers at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Danish royalty visiting the Festival of Nations
Danish royalty visiting the Festival of Nations
1942 Festival of Nations
1942 Festival of Nations
Czech folk dancers at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
Czech folk dancers at the 1934 St. Paul Folk Festival
1942 Festival of Nations market
1942 Festival of Nations market
Japanese group at the 1949 Festival of Nations
Japanese group at the 1949 Festival of Nations
American flag presentation at the 1964 Festival of Nations
American flag presentation at the 1964 Festival of Nations
1967 Festival of Nations
1967 Festival of Nations
Hmong cultural exhibit 1983 Festival of Nations
Hmong cultural exhibit 1983 Festival of Nations
Somali cultural exhibit 1999 Festival of Nations
Somali cultural exhibit 1999 Festival of Nations
American flag ceremony
American flag ceremony
Chinese calligraphy demonstration at the 2008 Festival of Nations
Chinese calligraphy demonstration at the 2008 Festival of Nations
Karen dancers at the 2010 Festival of Nations
Karen dancers at the 2010 Festival of Nations
International foods offered at the 2012 Festival of Nations
International foods offered at the 2012 Festival of Nations
Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars performing at the 2013 Festival of Nations
Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars performing at the 2013 Festival of Nations
Taiwanese food booth at the 2018 Festival of Nations
Taiwanese food booth at the 2018 Festival of Nations

Turning Point

In 1936, the International Institute holds the first event called “The Festival of Nations” at the St. Paul Civic Auditorium. It features cultural exhibits, international food cafes, ethnic dancing, and music performances—elements that would endure as the event evolved throughout the twentieth century.

Chronology

1932

In April, the institute’s executive secretary, Alice Lilliequist Sickels, starts what will become the Festival of Nations with a three-day Homelands Exhibit held at the YWCA auditorium.

1936

Architect Dorothy Ingemann designs a Gothic-style church facade as the center of a recreated world village with individual building facades for the cultural groups’ food booths.

1939

Crown Prince Frederick and Princess Ingrid of Denmark visit the Festival of Nations.

1942

The festival becomes a self-supporting enterprise, saving profits for a building fund for the future home of the institute.

1942

The festival’s Central European “Rendezvous” program features Jewish refugees from Vienna, two of whom had been soloists at a Vienna Opera House.

1944

Alice Lilliequist Sickels takes a leave of absence from her position as the executive secretary of the International Institute. She wrote a history of the institute and the Festival of Nations in her book Around the World in St. Paul.

1970

St. Paul Civic Center construction begins, and no festival is held.

1973

The festival is held at the St. Paul Civic Center for the first time.

1980

The International Institute of Minnesota decides to make the Festival of Nations an annual event.

1980

The festival hires a local set designer, Jack Barklas, to create new facades for the cultural groups’ food booths. The process would take seven years.

1983

The Student Participation program allows school groups to visit during the school day on Fridays.

1991

The institute creates festival “passports” to be stamped when visitors stop at cultural exhibit booths.

1998

The International Institute of Minnesota receives a $10,000 grant from the Minnesota Humanities Commission to film the festival.

1998

The festival is held in conjunction with the grand opening of St. Paul’s $75 million RiverCentre project.

2013

The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars band performs a headlining show at the Festival of Nations.