You may have seen it already – photos of nicely dressed children and adults, waving the Norwegian flag. They are often accompanied by marching bands with children or adults, or both. It is possible that you already know what this is about. And if you don’t, I can tell you right now what it is: it is the Norwegian Constitution Day on 17 May. Here you can read more about the National Day of Norway and learn why it is celebrated.
Why is 17 May celebrated?
The present Norwegian Constitution came into being in 1814 and was ratified on 17 May in the same year. For 400 years, Norway had been in a union with Denmark. The king, who was Danish, lived in Copenhagen and the official language was Danish. However, in the years leading up to 1814, much had changed in Europe. The French Revolution had sent shock waves throughout the continent. The United States of America developed in its own way, embracing other values than the traditional European ones. These were also changes that impressed the Norwegian people.
In order to understand what happened in Norway, we need to look closer at the events that took place in other countries. During the Napoleonic wars, Sweden had been allied to England, while Denmark was in alliance with Napoleon. When the end of the Napoleonic era was approaching, it was clear to everyone that Denmark was in a very weak position. Negotiations took place in Kiel to settle the situation between these two Scandinavian kingdoms. The outcome was very bad for the Danes – they had to leave Norway to Sweden.
During these negotiations, the Norwegians did not have a say at all. However, time was needed to settle the new union. This period of uncertainty was used by influential people in Norway to organize a national constituent assembly. The aim was to set up a Constitution.
The representatives were chosen via the church parishes. Letters were sent to every corner of the country, and the elected representatives travelled all the way to Eidsvoll, a small town in the Oslo region. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway was approved on 17 May 1814, after some weeks of discussions. A Danish prince, Christian Frederick, was elected king of Norway.
At the end of the Eidsvoll gathering, the deputies took this oath:
United and loyal until Dovre falls.
The Dovre mountains are an important national symbol in Norway. So is also the building where the «Men of Eidsvoll» met. It was the businessman Carsten Anker who had put his manor house at disposal for this event. Because of its historic and cultural value, the Eidsvoll manor house later became a national heritage site.
The newly established Kingdom of Norway lasted only a short time, despite all the efforts to set up a Constitution. In November 1814, the Norwegians had to accept that the new union with Sweden came into being. However, the Constitution had already been written, and it remained in place, with just a few adaptations. The Swedes accepted that Norway could keep a large degree of independence. There was an elected parliament and the Norwegian people had more democratic rights than in almost every other country. But there were many problems in the relationship with Sweden. Eventually, in 1905, Norway also left this union and became a fully independent constitutional monarchy. This time, the Danish prince Carl was asked to become king of Norway. After a referendum, in which the majority voted for monarchy, he took the name Haakon VII.
The children’s parade on Constitution Day
In Norway, there are no military parades on 17 May; the Norwegian Constitution day has instead become a children’s day. All around the country, you will see cheerful school children participating in the parades, waving their flags and shouting “hurray”. In Oslo, the number of participants is larger than anywhere else. In the capital, you can also see the members of the royal family waving to the children from the balcony of the Royal palace. Tens of thousands of cheerful schoolchildren wave back to them.
The parading children are accompanied by music played by marching bands. The most popular piece to play is probably the national anthem “Ja vi elsker”, although more modern tunes are also often played. Here, you will see a more traditional performance of the national anthem, set in a beautiful surrounding at the Oslo fjord.
Everyone is welcome on 17 May
The children may be the most cheerful participants of the parade. However, there are also many other participants, among them people representing different organizations.
On the national day, many people wear the traditional costume called bunad. They are used all over Norway, but there is a large regional variation in design. Of course, not everyone has a bunad, but everyone is expected to be nicely dressed on 17 May.
In Norway, people are very proud of this peaceful and cheerful way of celebrating the national day. However, it is also a celebration in which everyone is welcome to take part, including members of the immigrant communities.
We should also not forget the Norwegian communities abroad. Parades are organized in many cities worldwide, on every continent. The celebrations in other countries are often organized via the Norwegian churches abroad. They represent a meeting place for Norwegians, also for people who otherwise do not go to church very often.
In some areas of the United States, there is a strong tradition for celebrating the Norwegian Independence Day. In cities like Seattle and Minneapolis, people with Norwegian ancestors celebrate with the same pride as you can see anywhere in Norway.
People always want to celebrate 17 May, also with Covid-19. Different solutions have been sought to organize corona proof celebrations. This video shows you one way of doing it. Here you see an alternative (and modernized) presentation of one of the most popular 17 May-tunes:
Hopefully, the corona restrictions now belong to the past. In 2022, it is possible to celebrate 17 May the traditional Norwegian way again. You are also more than welcome to come to Norway to celebrate the day of the Constitution. However, it is appreciated if you dress nicely, like all Norwegians do. That is also what I have done for you in the photo on the top.
Would you like to learn more? This article on Sciencenorway.no explains how the Constitution of Norway can be seen in light of the world situation in 1814. You can also read more about 1814 and 1905 on the site of the Norwegian Royal court.
You will find more articles about Norway and the Norwegian language on this blog. Several blog posts can be read in other languages as well.