May 17 - Norway's Constitution Day

May 17 - Norway's Constitution Day

May 17 is celebrated all over Norway with parades, music, red, white and blue ribbons, ice cream, plastic flutes, helium balloons, and flags. It is truly a people’s day - everyone put on nice clothes - their national costume if they’ve got one, and gather in the streets to watch or participate in the parades. The schools are the most important participants in the parades, and May 17 is mainly the children’s day.

A closer look at the celebrations in Bergen(or Kiki's May 17 )
The fire brigade.
The fire brigade.
Did you know that...
May 17 is celebrated in some towns and cities in the US where many descendants of Norwegian emmigrants live. One such example is Seattle.

The French word for "National day" describes the Norwegian celebrations very adequately. And the word? Fête Nationale (National festival)

The Norwegian constitution from 1814 is one of the oldest in the world? The oldest constitution is that of the United States of America, signed in 1776.
A rather unusual paper-boy!  A rather tall one too!
A rather unusual paper-boy! A rather tall one too!
Crowds of people gather downtown.
A buekorps out marching
A buekorps out marching
The supply of balloons ought to be adequate!
The supply of balloons ought to be adequate!
A Member of
A Member of "The Larmony"
The dentists are well-represented in the parade. Here on their fancy lorry.
The dentists are well-represented in the parade. Here on their fancy lorry.
National Anthem
The national anthem of Norway is called "Ja, vi elsker". The lyrics were written by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and the music was composed his cousin Rikard Nordraak.

I got up at 8 am and had a look outside. The weather was beautiful! Sunny and mild, 18 degrees Celcius! I wasn’t the first to get up, that was obvious! The neighbors were busy getting the flag up to the top of the flag pole, and I could hear the local school brass band playing the National Anthem. They’re up marching incredibly early every May 17!

I found the clothes I was going to wear, a red skirt, matching t-shirt and a thin flowered scarf. I had to iron them (now, why didn’t I think of doing that last night?). Ironed some of the small flags too.

The big May 17 parade downtown started at 11 am. Before we left home, I placed a couple of the flags outside, next to the flowers, and attatched a red, white and blue ribbon to my t-shirt and one to my city-sack. That livened it up!

We parked the car in the outskirts of the towncentre, then walked in. Stopped at the Museum square where the some bands from the University and the chancellors and deans were getting ready to march to the parade’s starting point. One of the marching bands is called the Larmony ("Larmonien") - they’ve got black hats and very red jackets with TONS of buttons! I bet they're the only band in town with using a washboard as a musical instrument.

We found a place to stand close to the harbour. Had a hard time getting there, the streets and the pavements were so crowded with people.

First in the parade came two policemen on motorcycles, making sure there was enough room for the parade to pass through the crowds of people. Then came the May 17 committee, all of the memebers wearing tophats and one meter long ribbons. After them came the firebrigade’s brass band, and the mayor and parts of the city council. The ordontology students from the university (the future dentists) had built a mega-mouth and placed it on a lorry. From the back of the lorry they thossed mini toothbrushes and sugarfree gum to the children. (A huge success!)

The International Folkdance school of Bergen danced their way through the streets. It was really cool! Every one of them (there were about 20 people) was dressed in different folk costumes from many countries. I later heard that they won the best-coordination- in-the-parade-prize. They deserved it!

I can’t remember who they were, but someone (probably representing a bank) had made a new currency, just for Bergen, and printed the new notes on giant banners. They called this new currency “Becu” (“Ecu” is one way of saying “euro”, the new currency of the European Union). The new notes had pictures of famous Bergeners, like the singer Sissel Kyrkjebø. They also had some other banners saying “World bank to Bergen. Minibank to Trondheim.” The entry was rewarded with the prize for the funniest banners.

After them came more brassbands, lots of sports organizations (the skiiers used rollerskis!), scouts, many school children from the elementry schools downtown and the high school seniors.

The high school seniors are called “russ” in Norway, and May 17 is their big day of celebration. They are easy to spot ‘cause they wear red or blue overalls and have red or blue hats with small items tied to it. “Russekort” is a personal card each of the seniors has - it’s got their picture on it, their name and a comment of some sort. These cards are collector’s objects for many children. I saw to kids begging two seniors for their russekort: One of the seniors gave them one immediately to get rid of them, the other tried out what it was like to have absolute power: “I’ll give you both one if you sing a song!” (and, yes they sang a song - and got the card).
One feature of the May 17 parade which can only be found in Bergen is the “Buekorps”: Boys or girls in uniforms marching and drumming. The older ones are doing the drumming, the younger ones trying to keep step with the others. Those without drums often carry wooden rifles (wood all the way, it’s there as “decoration”, not as a weapon). A buekorps is called a battalion. There are several battalions in Bergen, and the first one was founded in the 1850s, so this is a tradition of which most Bergeners are proud of, and of which everyone else gets a headache (due to the drumming).

My sister insisted on getting a helium balloon after the parade was over. She tied it to her wrist so it wouldn’t fly off to unknown areas. We’d already seen at least 10 balloons headed for the sky!

I met some of my friends afterwards and strolled around with them while my family went to get lunch. My friends had been downtown for many, many hours, they’d had breakfast at Hotel Admiral. In some families it’s tradition to have a good May 17 breakfast at a hotel.

We stood in line for 15 minutes just to get an ice-cream! The place was sooo crowded, we had to wait 7 minutes just to get inside the shop, I’m positive! Sat down on the lawn in the city park and enjoyed the weather, the ice-cream and the holiday.

In the afternoon I watched the local May 17 parade. All the school children, the school’s brass band, children from two kindergartens and the old-boys band formed a long parade. They walked from the shopping centre down to the school where there always is a May 17 arrangement. At the school the principal gave a speech (sounded very much like last year’s speech!), the band played the National anthem and everyone sang along. There were games, lotteries, and stands were one could buy ice-cream, waffles, coffee, soda and pieces of cake. The games were: A fishing booth (a piece of string attached to a stick is thrown over a giant sheet (“the sea”) where a paper bag with small items such as erasers, chewing gum etc. is clipped on to the string), a tricycle race, a dart contest and a walk on stilts race.

In the evening I met my friends again and we went to the fair downtown. Rode the bumper cars, ate a hot-dog, took the ferris wheel, and met some others from school. Watched the fireworks at 11pm before I went home.

Historical background

Early 1814, after the Napolen war had ended, the Union between Denmark and Norway was dissolved. Norway was handed over to Sweden, but the political and governmental situation was not entirely clear at the time.
Two political parties formed, the Unionist party and the Independence party. The unionists wanted a new Union, this time with Sweden. The other party wanted an indendent Norway.

However, the political differences were put much aside in May 1814, and they agreed on all the important partss of the constitution. On May 17, in 1814, Norway's constitution was signed at Eidsvoll in Østfold. 112 men from various parts of the country representing the two parties had spent the preceding days writing it. The Danish prince Carl Fredrik, who sympathized with the indeendence party, was appointed the new monarch. Later the same year, Norway was united to Sweden, but was allowed to keep its constitution and its parliament. Carl Fredrik had to give up his royal title.

When the union with Sweden was dissolved in 1905, the constitution was revised.

Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845) and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832 - 1910)

Wergeland was a famous Norwegian writer who took a great interest in the current debates of his time. He grew up at Eidsvoll, and was the one of the two who made May 17 a day for the children. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who wrote the lyrics to Norway's national anthem, was also involved in making May 17 a children's day. He started the tradition of parades of children, all waving with the Norwegian flag. This patriotic parade upset the Swedish government, but was allowed to continue anyway.
From the encyclopedia:
"In most countries, national days are bserved by flag-raising ceremonies or other events symbolic of patriotism and national or civic pride. Since they are public holidays when people are exempt from work, they are also often an occasion for family celebrations or reunions."
( Microsoft Encarta '96)

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