Celebrating Norway’s Constitution Day – 17th May

If you are about to experience the celebration of Norway’s constitution day for the first time, it makes sense to be prepared.  If you have witnessed what seems like a feast of flags and national symbols already, an explanation is probably also needed.

The 17th of May is a celebration of the Norwegian Constitution, which was signed in Eidsvoll on the 17th of May 1814.  The Constitution declared Norway as an independent country.  At the time, Norway was in a union with Sweden – following a 400 year union with Denmark.  The celebrations began among students and others early on and the Swedish king did not approve of this at all, as it seemed like an uprising against Swedish sovereignty.  The first Children’s parade to celebrate the day was held in the late 1800, and Norwegians are to this day exceedingly proud of the fact that the “Independence Day” is celebrated with children’s parades instead of military parades.

Norway gained true independence in 1905 and is as such a relatively young country, despite its long history.  This is a possible explanation for the massive celebrations.  Also, the Second World War ended in Norway on May 8th 1945 and the following 17th was a celebration of the war ending and Norwegian independence at the same time, and the 17th of May certainly gained in strength after that.

The 17th of May is a day for formal attire.  Men are expected to wear suits and a tie, women wear summery dresses.  Another option is of course to wear one of the colorful national costumes – for both men and women.  The different parades are a magnificent display of these national costumes – known as bunad – in addition to Norwegian flags and marching bands.  The bunad is a surprisingly new addition to Norwegian tradition, although most people seem to be unaware of this, and is connected to the need to build a national identity after gaining sovereignty.  Each region has its own style of bunad and traditionally, your maternal ancestry decides what bunad you wear.  Earlier, choosing a bunad just because you liked the style was unthinkable, but this is becoming more and more common, although the so-called bunad police will not approve.  Don’t worry, there’s no actual police involved, just a set of rules connected to each of the national costumes.

For a detailed overview of what happens where you live, we recommend that you visit the website of your kommune or municipality.  Here you will find a display of the program for the entire day.  Generally, each school is represented in barnetoget,  the children’s parade – both pupils and teachers participate, and the parents find their place along the route of the parade to cheer them on.  All the children carry Norwegian flags (or, as is the case with most international schools, flags from their home country) and sing the national anthem “Ja, vi elsker” and other Norwegian songs.  In Oslo, the parade marches past the Royal Castle and the royal family spend most of the day out on their balcony, greeting the parade.  After the children’s parade, people typically gather at their local school for games and different activities.

Later in the day, a second parade is held – the so-called Folketoget, or People’s parade.  In this parade, all sorts of local organizations are represented – football teams, student associations, scouts and others.  This is normally quite fun to watch – the marching bands from the children’s parade also participate and the different organizations will try to display various activities.  Ah, and then there is of course the Russetoget.

What is a Russ, anyway?  This tradition is a celebration for students in their final semester of videregående skole, which is equivalent to high school/secondary school/junior college.  The celebrations normally start on the 1st of May and culminate in the Russ parade on the 17th of May.  They are easily recognized by their red or blue hats – and also suits and vehicles – and tend to be a rather loud addition to the celebrations on the 17th of May.  The hat is a modern version of what used to be a traditional students’ cap and marks the fact that the students now are ready to start university. It has been debated for decades if it hadn’t been better to postpone the celebration (in some cases literally a two-week party) until after the final exams, but so far tradition has prevailed, thus in some cases assuring that the students’ grades are not good enough to start university after all.

Do feel free to join in on everything happening this day – it is by no means a day reserved for Norwegians celebrating Norway – it is simply a day of celebration.  The 17th of May is also a day for ice cream, cream cake and friend/family get-togethers – and – hot dogs.  In most cases, it is also a day of rain, wind and generally bad weather – so make sure you don’t overdo the summer theme.