Hooray hooray – how to celebrate 17 May
“Hooray, hooray,” scream high-pitched voices, as they walk along Karl Johans gate, Oslo’s main street, onNorway’s National Day, 17 May. There are gummy smiles aplenty and the occasional unraveling plaits, but the atmosphere is magical. It’s party time in the capital and all over the country.
It was on this day, in 1814, when Norway gained its own constitution, following the rebellion against the Swedish regent Carl Johan’s attempt to bring Norway under Swedish rule. For this reason, it’s also known as Constitution Day. It was duly adopted by the National Assembly at Eidsvoll, north of Oslo, on 16 May, and signed by the presidency the following day. However, it took several years before 17 May assumed the shape it has today.
“Norway was in union with Sweden, and the Swedish king viewed a Norwegian national day as a provocation,” says Knut Dørum, History Professor at the University of Agder. “But by the 1820s, more and more people were celebrating it, and the Swedish king had to retreat. The first parades weren’t organized, but people dressed in party clothes, drank alcohol and made a lot of noise.”
In 1870, the author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832–1910) organized a parade in Christiania (as Oslo was then called). He recruited 1,200 boys to wave flags and parade through the streets. It caught the imagination of the public at large and ended up creating a precedent. Girls, however, were not invited until 1889.
To this day, Norway is still the only country in the world that organizes childrens’ parades on its national day.
“In most countries, military forces march on their national day. But with these children’s parades, Norwegians show that they stand for peace, tolerance and love. It’s a wonderful tradition,” says Dørum.
Another important tradition is the 17 May speech. For one person it perhaps means more than to most. To Remine Birkeland Kind, a 15-year old student from Stavanger, who won the speech competition, the speech perhaps has even greater significance.
“You should talk about the history of Norway and why you’re celebrating the day, about why it’s wonderful to live here and that we should be grateful for this,” says Kind. “We have plenty of reasons to be happy about this. Everyone can express their opinions and you won’t be disparaged or punished by the authorities for what you say. Everyone is educated and there’s not that much difference between people.”
The speech should also have some fun elements and you need to express this with a certain bravura.
“A good use of language and pauses are important when you read your speech. I practiced at home in the living room before I held my speech,” she adds.
In her speech, she talked about all the preparations and the candy, and the way children are associated with the festivities. She also brought up important issues, such as the debate on whether walking with other national flags should be allowed in the 17 May parade. In her speech, Kind said that Norway should not be so prudish as to not tolerate other national flags on the day itself.
One element that both delights and angers people in equal amounts is russefeiringen, a student celebration that marks the completion of high school and the fact that the students have now qualified for higher education. They are easily recognizable by their red and blue overalls – blue signals that you have completed your specialist subject courses, red that you have finished your more general studies. The celebrations officially start on 1 May and culminate on 17 May, when student parades are held in many places. This is an old academic tradition, apparently dating back to the Middle Ages, in which the students were accepted at the university via a special ritual. However, many people doubt this claim and the students don’t exactly eat madeleines with tea. Quite the opposite in fact – many have to be carried home from the large concert arenas in Stavanger and Oslo after consuming vast quantities of alcohol and there is a growing feeling among many adults that student behavior is worse than it has ever been.
“The students are always a bit worse than those the year before. You have to do something that nobody has done before, or it'll be seen as a defeat,” Social Anthropology Professor Allan Sande said to the Norwegian tabloid newspaper, VG.
Sande’s doctoral thesis researched the Norwegian student celebrations as a rite of passage and he experienced the student craziness first-hand, when they wrapped his house in recycled toilet paper.
But what else can you do on Norway’s special day?
“The first thing I do is to meet my friends. We then join the children’s parade together. That’s a tradition. After that, we head home and cook with friends. If it’s fine weather, we have a barbecue in the back garden, which is fun. That’s what we’ll do this year, too. Last year, I was given a national costume as a confirmation present and I’m going to wear that this year,” says Remine Birkeland Kind. “And of course, you shout ‘hooray, hooray’ till you’re hoarse.”
Text: Inga Ragnhild Holst
Published: May 8, 2017