Brazilians have their carnival, the Irish Saint Patrick’s Day. Norway’s answer? On 17 May we are commemorating the signing of the constitution on that date in 1814. In Norway, Constitution Day is huge.
While many countries celebrate their national day with a military parade, Norway’s 17 May is more of a party for everyone, especially the children. Before they take to the streets, many will gather for a 17 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 attract tens of thousands of people waving flags and shouting “hurra!”. In Oslo, the parade is greeted by the royal family who are waving tirelessly to the crowds from the Royal Palace balcony.
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 focus is mostly on eating huge amounts of ice cream and hot dogs, listening to speeches, and playing games at local schools.
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 17 May, 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 “russekort”, and you will get their personal calling card containing personal info and more or less funny jokes.
This is a truly special time to be in Norway, and you should join the locals in their celebration. And while most shops and offices are closed that day, you should definitely book a table in advance if you want to go out for lunch or dinner.
If you are driving, bear in mind that the centre of most cities and towns will be off limits during the parades.
The Constitution of Norway was passed unanimously by the Eidsvoll Assembly on 16 May 1814 and signed the next day.
The celebrations began spontaneously among students and others from early on, but as Norway was in a union with Sweden, King Karl Johan of Sweden and Norway banned the festivities between 1820 and 1829.
The first public address was held in 1833 by Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland, and from then on, 17 May has been celebrated as Norway’s national day.
From 1870, the day became more established with the first children’s parade in Christiania (now Oslo), an initiative taken by the author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who also wrote the national anthem “Ja, vi elsker dette landet”.
All over Norway, children’s parades form the central element of the celebrations, with school marching bands and an abundance of flags.
The longest parade is in Oslo where about 100,000 people participate in the main festivities in the city centre. The parade includes some 100 schools and passes the Royal Palace where the royal family greet everybody from the balcony. The parade is broadcast on national television.
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17 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.
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