May 17 is a very special day in Norway. This is their National Day or Constitution Day where they celebrate the day their constitution was signed in Eidsvoll about 200 years ago. It is celebrated with food, children’s parade, and so much joy.
On my first spring vacation in Norway, I was so excited for this very special holiday mostly referred to as 17. Mai (read as: Syttende Mai) (In English, 17th of May). Everyone was raving and excited about it. If you know these Norwegians, they are rarely excited. Or if they are, they barely show it.
This time around May 17 though, their excitement is obvious. Everyone is decorating their homes, preparing beautiful dresses, cleaning the streets, etc. All the stores have crazy sales, too. The excitement for Syttende Mai is so contagious that I couldn’t help but be excited as well.
From 1380 to 1814, Norway had been in a union with Denmark.
In 1814, Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden through the Treaty of Kiel after ending up on the loosing side in the Napoleonic wars.
In the 1820s, King Karl Johan of Sweden actually banned the celebrations. However, an amazing Norwegian writer named Henrik Wergeland was said to have started a children’s parade to celebrate National Day.
By 1864, May 17 celebrations became more established as another Norwegian writer, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson took the initiative to celebrate it with a children’s parade. Although, the first children’s parades only consisted of boys.
It was only in 1899 when girls were finally allowed to join in the parade.
In 1905, with the dissolution of the Sweden-Norway union, May 17 got a whole new significance. They felt like real freedom and independence can finally be experienced. It was also after this time, that the focus of the celebration being on the Norwegian constitution has been redirected to also include the royal family.
On May 8, 1945, when the second world war ended nine days before the National Day, the celebrations had a special joyful atmosphere. And that exuberant atmosphere continues to this day.
Most independence days or national days, even the Philippines, involves the military. It is probably only in Norway where it is not. It is basically celebrated with a children’s parade than anything else.
These parades happen all over Norway. They are accompanied by several marching bands and walk through the streets of their communities. Generally, each school is represented in barnetorget (the children’s parade). Both the pupils and teachers participate, and the parents find their place along the route of the parade to cheer them on.
The children carry Norwegian flags and sing the national anthem “Ja, vi elsker” and other Norwegian songs. These children’s parades attracts tens of thousands of people waving flags and shouting “Hurra!” Hip, hip, hurra!
There is also a second parade called Folketoget (People’s parade). In this parade, all sorts of local organizations are represented; football teams, student associations, scouts, and others. If the first parade is in the city center, this one takes place in the different locales.
In Oslo, the parade marches past the Royal Castle. It is probably the only day that the Royal Family sits outside the castle and waves to all the people passing by. Imagine you get to see the Queen and King waving at you? That doesn’t happen any day except on May 17. If you’re in Oslo, you probably don’t want to miss this.
In the first parade, you can’t help but notice these students wearing either red, blue, or black jumpsuits. They sometimes have buses and or vans with loud sound systems. They are the graduating high school (or secondary school) students. Basically, in their final semester (or well, the end of 13 years of required school) before they go off to college, they celebrate with drinking and partying in a tradition called Russ.
The celebrations normally start on the 1st of May and culminate in the Russ parade on May 17. Most of them look extremely tired by May 17th, and the exhaustion doesn’t stem from staying up all night studying for their exams but from partying all night.
I read that it has been debated for decades if it would be better to postpone the celebration (in some cases literally a two-week party) until after the final exams, but so far tradition has prevailed. So yeah, they celebrate with a month-long party before their final exams. 😛 Yes, that’s right. They party BEFORE their FINAL exams.
On May 17, kids are allowed to eat as much ice cream, soda, and pølse (hotdogs or sausage) as they want. Since there is a custom of “eat what you like” on this day, junk food is commonly on the menu, and in large quantities. What is traditionally eaten at family tables, however, often depends on where people are living. For example, near the sea and rivers, eating salmon and trout is quite common. While in the mountain villages, it can be rømmegrøt og spekkemat (porridge and cured meat).
This is also a day to dress nicely. Norwegians will of course wear their national costume, the bunad. This is one of the very few days in their life they have the opportunity to wear their bunad, so it’s understandable that the streets will flood with people showcasing different styles of bunad.
Each region has its own style. There are hundreds of different ones, with colors and styles indicating where in Norway the owner’s ancestry lies. Traditionally, your maternal ancestry decides what bunad you wear. So even in a small but beautiful city like Ålesund, I saw hundreds of different styles of bunad.
Since I’m a foreigner, I obviously don’t have a bunad (and it’s really expensive to have one), so let’s wear a nice dress instead. And men are expected to wear suits and a tie.
In Norway, as much as May 17 is a big party, it is also serious business. Before being a wealthy oil nation, Norway was the poorest and least free Scandinavian nation. Freedom from Sweden and Denmark who were much bigger empires is something people want to remember vividly: now we are free to be our own nation.
Waving their flag is a sign of their joy that finally they are a nation of their own with a flag of their own. So you’ll probably see a lot of flags being displayed everywhere and everyone is going to be bringing a flag.
Even if you’re a foreigner (especially if you’re a foreigner), don’t bring your own country’s flag. Please. This is Norway’s day. Let’s wave our flags on our national day. If you don’t feel like bringing and waving their flag, that’s okay. Don’t bring it, but don’t bring your own flag as well.
In the Philippines, we also have an Independence Day that we celebrate every 12th of June. On that day in 1898, the Act of the Declaration of Independence was publicly read proclaiming the sovereignty and independence of the Philippines from the colonial rule of Spain.
It was also the first time that the Philippine flag was waved by the first Philippine president, General Emilio Aguinaldo. It signaled the start of the Republic of the Philippines. However, that declaration was never recognized by either the United States of America nor Spain.
In some ways, the reason the Philippines celebrates its independence and the story behind and within said independence is the same as that of Norway. However, the way we celebrate it is so different. I’ve never seen us – Filipinos – celebrate it as joyfully as they do. As a Filipina, I pray that one day, as a nation we will say, “Finally, we are free to be our own nation,” and celebrate our true independence with much jubilation.
How about in your country? How do you celebrate National Day or Independence Day? Are you from or in Norway? Are you excited for Syttende Mai? Share with me on the comments below!
Excited for May 17,