May 17th (syttende mai) is the Norwegian National Day – the second-biggest holiday in Norway after Christmas. Norwegians of all ages, from the smallest children to the oldest family members take part in the celebrations – rain or shine. To give us some insight into this holiday, we asked Norwegian Tripper Morten in Oslo to give us the inside scoop.
What happens on May 17th? How is the day celebrated?
When I grew up, we used to go to church in the morning. Then after church, everyone lined up in a big parade outside the church. The different classes lined up in order, each class with their banners.
At the end of the procession is the “people’s parade” (folketoget), which is just everyone who is not in school. They march at the back of the parade.
In my home town, the parade was maybe 3 kilometers. We passed by the senior center and the parade stopped there to greet all of the residents as they sat outside on their balcony. And everyone in the parade sang the national anthem together with the old people. The parade ended at the sports arena by the local high school.
Kids and some kids-at-heart typically get their hot dogs and ice cream, and there are a couple of speeches given by civic leaders and the president of the Russ. Then there are games like throwing the horseshoe, racing with an egg on a spoon, potato sack races and hurling milk containers. In the evening there is an indoor event with speeches, live entertainment and food – a party.
Also, I should mention that typically men wear red, white and blue ribbons pinned to their suits. Many people also wear the traditional National outfit or bunad. The costume varies according to region and typically includes intricate embroidery and lots of silver embellishments.
Is this the same everywhere in Norway?
Well, yes. Except in Oslo the parade gets to pass by the Royal Palace where the royal family stands on a balcony and waves for hours. It’s broadcast nationally. One of my friends is a school teacher in Oslo, and she once took her class to march past the Royal Palace and wave. I think for the participants (something like 100 schools), marching past the king and queen is a bit anti-climatic just because it takes so long to get to the center of the action.
You mentioned Russ. What is that?
In the last year of high school, there is the big celebration where the graduating class is known as Russ. They dress up in coveralls in colors that vary according to what they study (for example if they are studying carpentry they wear black). The most common coverall color is red. Being Russ involves taking part in a series of activities ranging from big regional events to local bar nights to the 17 May celebrations.
Have you ever celebrated 17 May abroad?
I have not, but it is celebrated widely by Norwegian communities abroad. I know the Norwegian Church Abroad, also known as the Norwegian Seamen’s Churches puts on 17 May celebrations all over the world. I’ve only been to the one in San Francisco, but you can find these churches I think on every continent.
Check for a 17 May celebration near you by visiting the Norwegian Seamen’s Church web page of 17 May celebrations in various countries.