Norwegians may always love their country, but never is this more apparent than the 17th of May. Although some people refer to this as Norwegian Independence Day, Norway was actually still a part of Sweden and remained so for another 91 years. However, May 17th, 1814, was when Norway signed their own constitution (thanks, Sweden, for allowing this), and thus, the date is celebrated more rightfully as Norwegian Constitution Day or Norwegian National Day.
And boy is it celebrated.
A typical “syttende mai” (17th of May) celebration begins quite early, with friends or family gathering around 8 a.m. for an elaborate breakfast spread. (Note: this is NOT as early as the Estonian Independence Day celebration I attended a while ago, where citizens wake and climb to the Parliament building atop a mountain to sing their anthem at 7:00 a.m.)
Typical 17th of May Norwegian breakfast fare: hearty bread slices topped with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon (are we surprised by this?); more bread with an array of pålegg like butter, cheese, sliced veggies, sliced meat, etc.; kringla (a typical Norwegian ringed sweet bread with cinnamon, sugar and almonds inside); salad, sliced fruit and ice cream (already I am loving this day). Champagne or some equivalent bubbly alcoholic drink is necessary.
The day’s main event—the children’s parade—is downtown, but you would be crazy to try driving anywhere near there. Instead, we take the t-bane, and at each stop, it fills up more and more with festive citizens clutching Norwegian flags and dressed to the nines in their bunader.
Ah, the bunad—the Norwegian traditional outfit, featuring wool, intricate embroidery, poofy white sleeves, dangly silver things and shoes with buckles. Women wear a long woolen dress with another apron-type skirt on top, and men parade about with high woolen socks, britches and vests. When I was learning about Norway before coming here, I stumbled upon pictures of bunader (plural for bunad). I thought they were amazing, of course, but I didn’t understand quite how cool they were, nor how embedded they were in Norwegian culture.
The bunad has an old-fashioned feel; it’s like if Americans all wore colonial era attire to celebrate 4th of July. But the bunad hasn’t gone out of fashion like bonnets or layered petticoats – rather, it is still considered the highest class of Norwegian elegance, worn for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, or any other fancy event. “Let me put it this way,” my Norwegian friend Frøydis told me. “If you were going to meet the King, you would wear a bunad.”
The women’s version of the bunad (more popular than the men’s) features intricate embroidery, sometimes hand-stitched by great-grandmothers. A bunad is often passed down in the family; a girl will receive it at age 15 and wear it for her confirmation. As she gets older or bigger, the bunad can be adjusted. Your bunad is your bunad for life, except for maybe when you pass it on to your own granddaughter. There is also a sense of regional pride connected with the bunad, since each one is made with the colors, style, and embroidery patterns of the specific home region of your ancestors. Even though Frøydis lives in Oslo now, she wears her grandmother’s old bunad from the Telemark region. In downtown Oslo, there are hundreds of styles! I ask Frøydis if she feels a special kinship with the other same-styled Telemark bunad ladies. She says eh, a little, sometimes, but I get the impression it is not the exuberant wide-eyed recognition/pointing/waving routine I might engage in. A lot of little kids have mini bunader, which are just as adorable as you would expect.
If you are not so lucky as to inherit a bunad, then you can choose to buy one (which will set you back a few thousand dollars), sew your own (which might take decades), or just show up to the parade in nice clothing and a red-white-blue ribbon pinned to your top (the national colors made me feel right at home). What I loved most about the bunad is that it doesn’t seem to be worn with any sort of shame or reluctance (“Oh god, I have to dress up in Grandma’s old thing again,”) but rather, the utmost pride (“This is where I’m from, this is my bunad, I’m Norwegian.”).
Pride is a theme of the day: from the singing of the national anthem (“Ja, vi elsker dette landet” – “Yes, we love this land”), to the Norwegian flags hanging everywhere. I think if this kind of thing happened in America, we would be accused of being overly patriotic. But here it just seemed like a positive manifestation of the anthem: yes, we love this land.
Downtown Oslo is utterly packed; people crowd together along the sides of the street. Since this year is the 200th anniversary of the Constitution-signing, it’s an extra big and important celebration. There’s no pushing—everyone is still relatively polite—but if you want to move through the masses, you have to be politely determined. Everyone wants to see the Barnatog (“Children’s Parade”), the main event of the day. This parade is no small affair; essentially, every 1-7th grader in Oslo (plus some of the 8th-10th graders) will march with their school through the city center. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of children, in a parade that lasts over three hours!
The children march with school banners, and there are marching bands interspersed. Hip hip hurra! The parade winds through the major streets and past the Royal Residence, where the royal family sits on the balcony and waves. Norway has both a parliament and a king (and queen, crown princess and crown prince), but 17th of May celebration falls under the royal domain. King Harald waves for three hours straight.
The weather is gorgeous, the sun is bright, and soon the time comes for some refreshments. There are two main foods to eat on this day: pølser (hot dogs), and is (ice cream). The roadside stands selling these are making a killing, with lines stretching down the block. We buy some ice cream from a Narveson convenience store, and again it’s a case of a long line/crowd, where polite determination is the only approach. (I’m wishing I’d had proper time to develop and produce my brown cheese ice cream; I get the feeling that today would have been just the day for its grand debut).
In the afternoon, Norwegians usually retreat homeward to grill outside with friends and family…and eat more ice cream and hot dogs. At least this part sort of reminds me of American Independence Day.
I haven’t really celebrated the 4th of July properly for years – I’m usually doing some summer program, in the wilderness or out of the country. In my mind, it’s dispensable. On the other hand, Norwegian students have been talking to me about their upcoming 17th of May celebrations for weeks. When I was in the States, my family would usually barbecue outside with the rest of the families in our cul-de-sac. Our clever neighbors would have whipped up some red-white-blue dessert concoction involving berries and cream, and we would play four-square or kickball in the street. In the evening, we’d drive to the local lake and sit on blankets to ooh and aah over distant fireworks. Maybe I’d be wearing an American flag shirt from a Target sale. The day was fun, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that evoked overwhelming national pride and identification. Of course, I know that different people have different traditions. I have experienced some fun 4th of July parades, but they still seem more like a nice local summer celebration than a full-flung national event. I don’t see much colonial era attire.
Overall, I was impressed by 17th of May’s strong sense of national pride infused with culture and tradition. I loved that it was a day revolving around celebrating children, with an emphasis on the kids’ parade.
I figure it I start sewing a bunad now, it will be ready when for the 250th year anniversary! 2064, here I come!