«17. of May we are so fond of, fun we will have from morn til eve!»
This is the first stanza in one of the most famous and dearest of our 17. May songs. This is the day when we celebrate the Norwegian liberation from Sweden, marking the day when the Norwegian constitution was signed at Eidsvoll in 1814. Norwegians all over the world mark May 17., and here in Norway we have very special traditions around the celebration. Who can celebrate the Constitution Day without ice cream, Vienna sausages, children’s parades and the Russ?
The bunad shirt is ironed, the silver is polished, and the Norwegian flag is raised at dawn. Now we are ready for a full day of fun. A large part of the day is spent watching the parade going through the city centers in step with band music. Be it a children’s train, a Russ train or a folk train – Norwegians of all ages and with every possible interest have a place to walk in the 17th May parade. Here we get the opportunity to march around our city, and proudly show off both ourselves and what we are doing. The elementary schools usually make homemade banners for each grade in the children’s parade, and all kinds of unions, associations, and clubs makes their own show in the folk parade. You can’t help but smile and feel a sense of warm pride when you see how much life is created in the streets on the 17th of May.
Who can eat the most ice cream and sausages on May 17th? Forget wise dietary advice – Vienna sausages, ice cream, and cotton candy is a normal diet for any Norwegian on the national day. Among the children, it is impressive to boast that one has been allowed to eat FOUR entire ice cream cones on May 17., regardless of how nauseous one really feels. The day is not called “barnas dag”, the children’s day, for no reason. On the other hand, it is very difficult to clean ketchup stains from the Vienna sausages off the bunad shirt afterwards, so be careful!
What about those without children? Among students and groups of friends it is common to start the day with a 17th of May breakfast. Young adults gather early in the morning and eat an extra nice breakfast together – preferably combined with some champagne or a mimosa. The champagne breakfast, as it is called, usually ends with a large pavlova cake before the group goes out to the city center to enjoy the national day.
Before Norwegians graduate from upper secondary school, we celebrate Russetida, the Russ time. Here we buy a van or bus with friends, and party (almost) non-stop for a month before it all ends in a big Russ parade on May 17th. It is very easy to recognize the Russ – all go in matching overalls or pants in red, black or blue, and many wear parkas with their Russ logo. Most vans or buses buy or make their own logo with their Russ name, and those most excited commission a song to represent their group with. At most, the Russ can spend tens of thousands of dollars on the Russ time! During the celebration we drive around in our cars, gather with more Russ, and a couple of weekends in the year we go on national Russ meetings to party with other Russ from the rest of Norway. One thing is certainly true – it is the longest party most Norwegians will experience during their lifetime.
The Norwegian national outfit is called bunad. There are dresses for the ladies, and suits for men, and they look different depending on which part of the country you come from. During the Constitution Day, you can see quite a few different types of bunad, and you can ask any Norwegian and they will happily tell you which region the dress is from. The costumes are based on Norwegian fashion from the 18th century and are often beautifully embroidered with elements from Old Norwegian tradition and Norwegian nature. On the other hand, there is a great disadvantage with the bunads; Most are made of wool and can get quite warm and itchy during the May 17. celebration – but that doesn’t stop us from wearing them!
May 17. abroad?
It is not only here in Norway that Norwegians celebrate the Constitution Day. The Norwegians who live abroad, or have Norwegian roots, share the same enthusiasm for the national day. Especially Norwegian embassies, churches, student organizations and other Norwegian institutions organize local celebrations in different cities. In Stockholm, Sweden, the May 17. celebration has become an annual tradition, and tens of thousands of Norwegians and Swedes gather and celebrate together. There are also May 17. programs in other cities, including Gothenburg, Luleå and Lund. Norwegian-Americans usually celebrate the day with Viking helmets, cowboy hats, Norwegian flags and homemade costumes in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York, on the Sunday closest to May 17. Similarly, Seattle, Washington has celebrated May 17. since 1889, and other major celebrations are held in locations such as London, Singapore, Florida, and Canada each year.
May 17. is thus a great day with many traditions. From the first celebration with the first children’s parade that was arranged in Oslo in the mid-1800s, to the present day with ice cream cones and sausages all over the country – Norwegians always have, and always will, love the national day. For us, May 17. is much more than just a day. It represents everything Norwegian, the free and the proud country we live in. If the sun shines through the birch trees, children’s laughter sounds from the center square, and the school choir plays in the distance, few are happier than us.
Did you know?
When a large crowd welcomed the steamship “Constitution” on May 17., 1829, with much cheering and singing, the authorities became nervous.
Henrik Wergeland, who, according to stories, came riding through Stortorget with a naked woman, was central to the street battles that have later been called “The Battle of the Square”. The peaceful crowd was chased away by cavalry and infantry, and this provoked strong opposition, which in turn led to a breakthrough for the May 17. celebration.
Sausages are a natural part of the national day for many. Nortura estimates that 20 million sausages are sold during the May 17. week, which accounts for just under four sausages per capita in the kingdom. In Eastern Norway, the Vienna sausages are the most popular, while in the rest of the country the grill sausages are the favorite.
Most of us eat between 5 and 10 times as much ice cream as we would otherwise on a regular spring day. And the better the weather is, the more ice cream we eat. How many liters of ice cream is consumed by Norwegians on this day is a well-kept secret among the ice cream makers, but Kroneis, “Crown Ice”, seems to be the favorite among young and old.