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The 17th of May: A deep dive into the rich history and traditions of Norway’s Constitution Day

Norwgian national day celebration 17 may

The 17th of May, often referred to as Nasjonaldagen or Syttende Mai, is a national holiday in Norway, marking the anniversary of the country’s constitution, which was signed in 1814.

With cheerful children’s parades, loud marching bands, people dressed in bunad (traditional costumes), and loads and loads of ice cream, Norway’s Constitution Day is quite a fun fest!

The celebration of this day is a time for Norwegians to come together and express their pride in their country’s rich history and culture.

A quick glance at the history of Norway’s Constitution day

Officially, the 17th of May has been celebrated in Norway since 1829, just 15 years after the signing of the constitution, though there were some attempts at commemorating this important day even before that.

In the 1820s, the 17th of May celebrations had a palpable undertone of anti-Swedish sentiment, and after the celebration in 1825 the king, Karl Johan, warned the officials against participating in any celebration the following year.

In 1829, syttende mai fell on a Sunday, and large crowds celebrated the day, which triggered the so-called Battle of the Square. The following year, many people were arrested during the celebration.

In 1836, the Storting (the Norwegian parliament) celebrated the 17th of May, and from then on it was instituted as the country’s national day. The king never intervened again, but only after his death in 1844 did civic processions and public speeches become common.

In the early years the celebrations were limited to Christiania (now Oslo), but it gradually spread throughout the country. The day became more significant after Norway gained independence from Sweden in 1905, and it became a national holiday in 1947.

Why makes the children’s procession so special?

It was primarily the famous writers Henrik Wergeland and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson who made syttende mai a real national day in ever-widening circles of the Norwegian people.

It was through the latter’s initiative that the first barnetoget (children’s train or procession) came to be in 1870. Bjørnson’s friend, school principal Peter Qvam, had organized a children’s train at his school the year before. What was first called Smaagutternes Flagtog (the small boys’ flag procession), brought together 1,800–2,000 schoolboys and started one of the most important 17th of May traditions in Norway.

While the so-called borgertoget (citizens’ train or procession) has become less and less important, the children’s train has become the central feature of the 17th of May celebrations in both rural and urban areas.

During World War II, it was forbidden to participate in the 17th of May parade or to wear the colours of the Norwegian flag on your clothes. Upon liberation on the 8th of May 1945, the flag therefore became an extra strong symbol of Norway’s freedom.

Let’s look at some of the 17th of May (syttende mai) traditions

The 17th of May celebrations in Norway are marked by several unique traditions and customs.

One of the most iconic traditions is the wearing of the bunad, the traditional Norwegian folk costume that is worn by both men and women. The garments feature intricate embroidery and patterns that reflect the wearer’s regional heritage. It is often combined with silver accessories and special buckled shoes. The costume is often passed down from generation to generation, and it is considered a cherished family heirloom.

Bunad, Norwegian traditional costume for the 17th of may

Another popular tradition is the 17th of May breakfast, or syttende mai-frokost, which typically consists of champagne or sparkling wine, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and a variety of other dishes. The breakfast is often enjoyed with friends and family, and it is an excellent way to start the day before heading out to join the festivities.

The parade, or syttende mai-toget, is a highlight of the day’s celebrations. The parade features schoolchildren, marching bands, and local organizations, all dressed in their best attire. The parade typically starts in the morning and makes its way through the city or town, with spectators lining the streets to watch and cheer.

Another beloved custom is the singing of the national anthem, Ja, vi elsker dette landet, which translates to ‘Yes, we love this country’. The song is often sung at the start of the parade, and it is also sung at other times throughout the day’s festivities. The national anthem is a powerful expression of Norwegian pride and unity, and it is a reminder of the country’s rich history and culture.

Russ

One unique aspect of the 17th of May celebrations in Norway is the role of the russ. The russ are high school seniors who are celebrating the end of their final year before graduation. They wear distinctive overalls in red, blue, black or lately green, and participate in a range of activities and challenges throughout the month of May.

The 17th of May marks the start of the russ month, and therefore the high school students dressed in overalls are a prominent part of the celebrations, and they often have their own parade through the streets.

They are known for their wild antics, including drinking and partying, but they also participate in more wholesome activities, such as fundraising for charity. While some Norwegians view the russ as a nuisance, others see them as an important part of syttende mai and a rite of passage for young people.

Newer trends in focus

The 17th of May celebrations in Norway have evolved over the years, but they remain an important part of the country’s cultural identity. In recent years, there has been a renewed focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility, with many communities taking steps to make the celebrations eco-friendlier.

One example of this is the use of electric or hybrid vehicles in the parades, rather than traditional diesel-powered floats.

Have you ever celebrated the 17th of May in Norway? How was your experience? Did you enjoy it or did you find it strange? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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