The 17th of May (syttende mai) is the national day of Norway. This year (2014) the celebration was bigger than ever, as it was the bicentennial celebration of Norway’s independence and recognition as a nation.
It was on this day, two hundred years ago, in the little town of Eidsvoll, that Norway’s constitution was signed and sealed. This document is known as Norges Grunnlov (Norway’s founding law). Norway’s constitution took elements from the United States Declaration of Independence and the French republican movement, but what it did differently was to keep its royal family. In fact, the people chose who their next king would be (looking to Denmark, as apparently the Norwegian royal bloodline had died out). This act of choosing was considered quite radical at the time.
The push for independence was initiated by the Danish king after the Danish-Norwegian alliance suffered devastating losses in the Napoleonic wars. It was a clever chess move to quell the fear of being swallowed up by Sweden. The main problem though was whether Sweden would accept the new constitution. At the time, Norway and Sweden were in an alliance, but soon war with Sweden broke out. However, the Swedes were smart enough to realise that occupation of a hostile country would cost them more in the long run than simply allowing the Norwegians to go their own way. And so the sovereign state of Norway was born, although it wasn’t until 1833 that Norway openly celebrated their national day on the 17th of May.
Over time, many amendments have been made to the Norwegian constitution including a referendum in 1905 on whether Norway would become a republic; the resounding NO vote to the European Union in 1994; and the most recent change in 2012 to separate church and state.
The celebration of the 17th of May is a celebration of the people. It’s unique in the sense that almost everyone celebrates the day, regardless of age. There’s a strong focus on the wearing of bunads (traditional Norwegian costumes) - and even if you’re not from Norway, you’re encouraged to wear your national costume and join the party.
National pride is intense and can be physically and mentally felt everywhere. Festivities start early in the morning and last until late into the night. The absence of all things military (in the parades) is also unique. Community clubs, associations and organisations, as well as schools and the general public, are the main participants in the parades. Usually the day starts with the barnatoget (children’s parade), and ends with the folketoget (people’s parade) and russtoget (graduating high school students’ parade), who are easy to spot in their red or blue overalls.
The largest parade in the country takes place in Oslo. The toget (parade) marches up to the Norwegian royal family’s slottet (castle), and the people and royals greet one another.
The national broadcaster, NRK, reports live from around the country, showcasing local traditions, history, culture and more. The day ends with the singing of the national anthem, Ja, vi elsker dette landet.
As nearly every single business, aside from takeaway outlets, are closed, the majority of eating takes place at home with family. If you live alone in Norway, it’s probably the day you’d most like to avoid. There are also many who head for the quiet of the mountains or remote locations to escape the crowds, shouts of hipp hipp hurra, whistles, horns, ice creams and hotdogs.
Nobody can deny though that the day is a true celebration of what Norway’s independence was built upon: freedom, equality, community / family, and thanksgiving.