For Mia Nelson, who was born and raised in Solvang by Danish parents, the city’s annual Danish Days celebration has always been one of the most important and anticipated weekends of the year.

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Going as far back as she can remember, the now 16-year-old senior at Santa Ynez Valley Union High said the Saturday afternoon parade was always one of her highlights.

“Walking in the children’s parades, I always pretended everyone came to see me, like I was the Danish Maid, and I would carry around my baby doll in a stroller with my little outfit,” she said, noting that she can’t recall ever missing the event. “I always had my own maid dress, and was always in the parades and always looked up to the girl in the (Danish Days) magazine and wanted to be her.

“I thought I was her,” she added with a laugh.

This year, that fantasy has come to life.

Nelson was selected as the 2012 Danish Maid this spring and since then has played a key role in promoting this year’s Danish Days festivities, which will begin with a concert at Solvang Park on Friday, Sept. 14, and run through Sunday, Sept. 16. She will also be the center of attention at Saturday’s parade – and not just in her own mind.

“It makes me feel so proud to be Danish,” she said. “Denmark is such a small country, so it’s not very often that you hear someone say, ‘Yeah, I’m Danish’ or ‘I’m from Copenhagen’ or whatever. So I feel so honored that they chose me to represent that for the whole Valley and the whole town. I feel like I’m setting an example for the younger girls, who will hopefully look up to me the way I did (to the Danish Maids) when I was younger. I want to set a good example for our community, too, and our Danish culture and keep it alive.”

Danish culture has always been a big part of Nelson’s life. Her mother, Conny Nelson, was born and raised in Fyn, Denmark, and came to the U.S. in 1990. It was in the States that Conny met her soon-to-be husband and Mia’s father, the late Stephen Nelson, who was half-Danish. Mia said that her father, who died from cancer in 2010, was enamored with his Danish roots and did his best to instill the culture in his youngest daughter.

“He was so proud of being Danish, maybe even more so than my mom and she’s from Denmark,” Mia recalled, laughing at the memories. “He would try to speak it all the time and try to teach me.”

Although she didn’t learn to speak fluent Danish – she does know important phrases, though, like “Jeg elsker dig” (I love you) and “tak for mal” (thanks for the meal) – she said that the two of them would often talk about her being Danish Maid, “but it was always just talk and I didn’t think I’d actually become it. I really wanted to pursue it for him.”

She began her pursuit of the role by submitting an essay back in the spring on why she thought she’d make a good Danish Maid. Not long after, she was brought in for an interview. Two weeks later, and much to her surprise, she received a phone call with the good news.

“I was like, ‘Wait, really?’” she said of her initial reaction as she listened to the call in her kitchen after returning home from track practice. “I thought they were kidding. Then I got really excited and was jumping up and down, and then I started crying and got really emotional about my dad. It was mixed emotions, but overall a really good feeling.”

Her mom said she was also surprised, but thrilled that her daughter’s dream was realized.

“She was always in the children’s parades and would be the little girl up front yelling, ‘I want to do that one day,’” Conny said. “I’m really proud of her. It’s very special. Her dad would be really, really proud of her.”

Mia honored her family’s history in her dress design. The dress, which she helped create with a seamstress, has a red vest and checkered apron to represent her mother’s hometown of Fyn. Perhaps the most personal aspect of the garment can be found on the sleeves. Sewn onto each sleeve are handkerchiefs that were hand-embroidered by her great-grandmother and were worn by her father when he was a toddler.

“This was my dream and his,” Mia said of her father.

Since being named Danish Maid, Mia has had a busy schedule. She has been promoting Danish Days and selling tickets for the event each week at the Solvang Farmers Market and also attending the Danish Days board meetings each week, along with luncheons, breakfasts and rotary club meetings in the weeks leading up to the festival.

All of that is on top of her already busy school schedule. In addition to AP courses, she is also a member of the Santa Ynez High track and field team, National Honor Society, California Scholarship Federation, Red Cross Club, Interact Club, Youth Action Council, and secretary of the Associated Student Body.

After her graduation next spring, Mia said she would like to attend a four-year university, preferably in Southern California, and major in either a branch of business or communications. She said her experience as Danish Maid, a reign that will run through the naming of a new maid next spring, will surely prove beneficial in her future.

“I think it’s definitely an advantage,” she said. “It helps with practicing my public speaking and just people skills in general.”

When the Danish Days festivities kick off, she said one of the events she is most looking forward to is the Friday night Torchlight Parade.

“I have a weird fascination with lights and candles,” she said. “I think it’s so pretty.” Traditionally, the Danish Maid’s father accompanies the maid and carries a flag during that parade. Nelson will have her older brother, 27-year-old Daniel Hestehauge, filling in that role.

“He’s like my father figure in the family and my best friend, so I’m really excited for that,” she said.

She said she’s expecting a lot of family and friends to join the festivities and is hopeful her other three siblings are able to attend as well. No matter what, though, she is confident the weekend will be a blast.

“Everyone’s just one big happy family,” she said, noting the Danish singing, dancing and food that will be on display. As for whether she’ll be singing or dancing herself: “Yeah, I’m down for it,” she confidently stated.

While giving a nod to the organizers who work hard to put on the event each year, her mom said she’s also looking forward to the celebration.

“Just seeing the town come together,” Conny said of her most anticipated aspect. “Everyone can come and enjoy it, and pretend they’re Danish for the weekend.”