Syttende Mai: The Most Norwegian Day of the Year

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IMG_5632Syttende Mai (May 17) is Norway’s national holiday, the day the Norwegian Constitution was signed at Eidsvoll in 1814, declaring Norway to be an independent nation after more than 400 years under Danish rule. However, a brief war between Norway and Sweden in the following months led to a loose union between the two countries, with Sweden the dominant partner. Full Norwegian independence did not come until the dissolution of the union in 1905, but it is still May 17 that is celebrated as the country’s official national day.

The holiday is celebrated throughout Norway with colorful parades with flags, banners, and marching bands. The longest parade is the morning children’s parade in Oslo, which starts at Festningsplassen and winds through the heart of the city, traveling along Karl Johans gate past Stortorvet, Parliament, and the Royal Palace, before ending up at City Hall. Students in their final year of secondary school, known as russ, add their own high spirits to the mix, merging their celebrations of impending graduation with the national festivities. Many hold their own parades with decorated trucks and buses and music booming loudspeakers.

Throughout the day, Norwegians are out and about in the streets, many wearing traditional folk costumes, known as bunads (Norwegian plural: bunader). These colorful, beautifully embroidered costumes vary from region to region, with each part of the country having its own distinctive design. In the larger cities, you’re likely to see bunads from all over Norway, as people often choose to wear costumes representing the region their families come from.

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A practical note for visitors: Most shops and offices in Norway are closed on May 17, and most cities and towns close off downtown streets for the celebrations.

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