For Norwegians, the 17th of May is a pivotal day. It is known as “Syttende Mai”, which means “May Seventeenth”. This day is also known as Nasjonaldagen (The National Day) or Grunnlovsdagen (The Constitution Day). On May 17th of 1814, Norway’s constitution was signed at Eidsvoll, marking the country’s birth as an independent nation from Swedish rule. Norway is said to have the world’s second oldest constitution in continual force. Who knew? Every year, on the 17th of May or “Syttende Mai”, the event is proudly celebrated across the country.
Digging deeper into a bit of history, after 1814, both the King of Norway and the King of Sweden were reluctant to allow the celebrations of this event, as it was thought the celebrations would be viewed as a protest or disregard for Sweden. However, in 1829, Norwegian King Karl Johan changed his opinion after the infamous “Battle of The Square” at Christiana, Norway in 1829. It was during this battle that a Norwegian writer and poet Henrik Wergeland, a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1814, became a hero and symbol of the fight for the celebration of the constitution. Wergeland is also credited with making Syttende Mai a celebratory day for the children rather than a day of patriotic pride. He created the first known Children’s Parade at Eidsvoll. Following Wergeland’s thought, it is said that this day demonstates that the children, the country’s future, are the patriotic pride of Norway. After 1905, the focus of the parade also included the Royal family. However, even today, the focus on the Royal family and elected government is minor during this celebration. In addition, even though flags and music dominate the day, it is a non-military celebration.
All over Norway, the children’s parades are the central focus of the celebration. Each elementary school district arranges its own parade complete with marching bands. Children sing lyrics that include the celebration of the Nathional day as the parade route takes the children and their parents through the celebrating communities. The longest parade is in Oslo and includes some 100 schools! Over 100,000 people travel to the city centre to participate in the main festivities. It is in Oslo that the schools gather to parade and pass the Royal palace where the Royal family wave to the parades from a balcony. There are also parades for the public, where every citizen is welcome to join in. In fact, it is said that any foreigner that may be visiting Norway on this special day can expect to have a flag thrust in their hand and welcomed to join the celebrations. The parades conclude with the singing of the national anthem, “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” and the Royal anthem, “Kongesangen”. This National holiday that honors the creed of independence, values and brotherhood is an honorable day, indeed.
Aside from the mass of Norwegian flags, the colors worn pay tribute to the Norwegian flag of red, white and blue. Although a historical tradition, it is still popular (and fashionable!) for men, women and children to wear traditional outfits called the Bunad. I myself, have one of these Bunads and as a small child, was photographed in this Nordic tradition, as was our daughter. History of traditions carried out, indeed. But the photograph I chose to share is that of my Dad….
Since I was a young child, this day was always memorable. My Father’s parents immigrated from Lyngdal and Stavanger, Norway to the United States in 1927, meeting in Chicago, Illinois in 1929. Chicago had at the time a large Norwegian settlement in which yearly held a large Syttende Mai parade in Humboldt Park. In my memory, long after the passing of my Grandparents, Syttende Mai was always a significant day. Throughout the years, my father and his only sibling, would celebrate this pivotal day by telephoning each other, as distance within the United States always kept them apart. Laughter and Norwegian words would fill the air and filter into my impressionable mind. It was not uncommon for them to break out singing a verse or two of the Norwegian National Anthem, “Ja, vi elsker dette landet”…it was, after all, Syttende Mai! To this day, they still carry this tradition and I have followed suit. A call to both of them is always in order. So, with that said, a call to order to all of those that celebrate Norwegian heritage: Happy Syttende Mai to my Dad, my Uncle, and to all!