Marching bands, parades, traditional costumes and ice cream. A lot of ice cream. The celebration of the national day is a party like no other in Norway.
Brazilians have their carnival, while the Irish have Saint Patrick’s Day. Norway’s answer? Well, the closest thing we’ve got is the 17th of May, commemorating the signing of the constitution on that date in 1814. In Norway, the Constitution Day is huge.
While many countries celebrate their national day with a military parade, the 17th of May is more of a party for everyone, and especially the children. Before you head out in the streets, many will have a “17th of May breakfast” – often a potluck with friends and neighbours – with freshly baked bread, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and for the grown-ups, champagne.
Children’s parades then take place across the country, and led by marching bands they walk through their communities. The largest of the traditional parades attracts tens of thousands of people waving flags and shouting “hurra!”. In Oslo, the parade is greeted by the royal family waving to the crowd.
Nationalistic? Perhaps, but the non-militaristic and generally joyous atmosphere, in addition to the children’s special place in the celebrations, makes the day a largely uncontroversial affair.
The day is also an opportunity for men and women to show off their “bunad”, Norway’s traditional costumes. There are hundreds of different ones, with colours and styles indicating where in Norway the owner's ancestry lies.
Significantly less colourful are the red or blue jumpsuits of the “russ”, soon-to-be-graduates celebrating the end of 13 years of school. Most of them look extremely tired by May 17th, and the tiredness usually doesn’t stem from them staying up all night studying for their exams ...
The russ have their own parades, with buses and vans with expensive and rather loud sound systems. Ask them for a card, called a “russekort”, and you will get their personal calling card, with personal info and more or less funny jokes on it.
Ice cream and hot dogs are traditionally the not-so-nutritious diet during the celebration, while games are played and speeches are held during the afternoon in the local communities.
This is a truly special time to be in Norway, and you should by all means join in with the locals, but don't expect to get much else done that day – most shops and offices are closed on the 17th of May.
If you are driving, bear in mind that the centre of most cities and towns will be off limits, and traffic jams are likely.
The Constitution of Norway was signed at Eidsvoll the 17th of May in 1814, but at the time Norway was in a union with Sweden, and for a few years in the 1820s king Karl Johan of Sweden actually banned the celebrations. The 17th of May became a larger event when Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (the writer of the national anthem, “Ja, vi elsker dette landet”) took initiative to a children’s parade in the capital of Oslo (then: Christiania) in the 1860s.
Only boys were allowed in the parade until 1899, when the authorities at last came to their senses. The dissolution of the Sweden-Norway union happened in 1905, and the day got a whole new significance when the Second world war ended in the 8th of May 1945 – just before the national day. Needless to say, the celebrations had a really special atmosphere that year …
17th of May is a big day for restaurants in Norway. Many Norwegians celebrate by going out to eat. It is therefore wise to make reservations if you plan to eat out this day.
The history and traditions of a country often reveal a great deal of fun facts about the people and their customs. Norway is no exception.
In May flowers are blooming, and so are we Norwegians. You can feel nature virtually exploding into life all around you. There are several public holidays in May, and the Norwegians make full use of them to celebrate springtime after a long winter.
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