Norwegians will tell you there are no rules on the 17th may, their National day, and it is true to a certain extent. On this day celebrating the day they signed their Constitution and felt free and independent, kids are allowed to eat as much ice cream and pølse as they want. Teenage “russ” are allowed…well they are allowed to do anything, and that started weeks ago: binge-drinking, dancing in disco-buses, showing their bums in roundabouts and answering all sorts of teenage challenges. 17th of May is their last day of silliness before they start their exams (yes you heard me: party BEFORE exams).
This is also the only day of the year where adults are allowed to start drinking alcohol from morning without being called an alcoholic. It is called 17.mai frokost and involves putting strawberries in Cava and eating very very creamy layered cakes with berries on top (bløtkake, and not blodkake as I first though it was called).
Freedom, independance, alcohol, games, ice creams and parties, you would think everything is allowed on this day and you would be wrong. Despite the freedom that this day reminds Norwegians of, and despite the palpable joy coming out of all the street demonstrations and home parties, there are many rules NOT to break on this day and these rules need to be learnt by foreigners like you and me who haven’t integrated them since childhood.
Note: there aren’t just foreigners who won’t feel completely free. As a parent 17.mai means a lot of dugnads, driving around, watching your kids in the 17.mai barnetog and other obligations before and during the “party” day. Drinking from early morning won’t be for you I’m afraid!
Rule no.1: You need to dress nicely. Norwegians will wear their bunad, traditional costume, different for every corner of Norway. Being a foreigner you obviously don’t have such bunad, so you need to wear a suit (for men) or a really nice dress (women). But don’t come wearing sloppy clothes and flip flops. You can come totally hungover and even drunk from the party you had last night but you need to have nice clothes on.
I say foreigners can come with a traditional costume from their country/region, which seems acceptable to some Norwegians and less to others: “This is OUR day”. Some like to see all these “ethnic dresses” all over the city and I think it is a beautiful picture of multiculturalism and acceptance and living together in peace to see Indians, Kenyans and Norwegians side by side, all in their most beautiful dress. I got one made this year from Provence and I can’t wait to put it on on Saturday. But as it is a national day it can mean different things for different people, and some Norwegians can get really sensitive about it.
Rule no.2: Bring a Norwegian flag. Anywhere else in Europe so many flags would be like screaming “patriotism” in a slightly negative way, but here in Norway it just means they are so glad to be a nation of their own with a flag of their own. Not having to put their national culture and pride under someone else’s flag like the Danes’ or the Swedes’. I don’t advise you to bring the flag of whatever region you are from, taking advantage of this Norwegian National Day to scream whatever independence your region wants.
I usually bring two flags: Norwegian and French, but again there has been many debates about this and some Norwegians get really irritated at seeing all these foreign flags. Again, “this is OUR day, not yours” is basically the answer you’ll get.
Rule no.3: Drink. Lots. From early morning, or start the night before. Just so that you are in tune with everyone else enjoying this day. Norwegians are not the most social and comfortable people when sober, so a little push is welcome to feel really free. (See What to expect from a drunk Norwegian on this same theme).
Rule no.4: Have fun and let loose. This is the only day Norwegians don’t think of the future, of their mortgage, of where they will go in holidays, of what they will repair in their hytte and how much skiing they will do this winter. On that day they are thankful for the past. So do the same: enjoy today.
Rule no.5: Chose a local crowd. Although your friends in Norway might not be locals, a good day to hang out with your Norwegian friends is their National Day. They will take you through the day, make a great 17.mai frokost. You will see them happy and cheerful and they will explain everything you need to know about this day they are remembering: the day their Constitution was signed in Eidsvoll. Do not surround yourselves with only foreigners that day or you won’t get a true feeling of what the national day is for Norwegians and enjoy the day through their own eyes.
Rule no.6: Get informed: this year is Norway’s 200th anniversary of the Constitution and there are many side events to the 17th May since the beginning of the year. And remember this is a big deal for Norwegians, maybe much more than in your own country.
In France the National Day reminds us of the French Revolution where the people (read the bourgeois) took power over the King, the representative of God on Earth, who later would be beheaded. We remember that every year by watching military parades on TV and going to see the fireworks in the city centre of wherever we live. No traditional costumes, no craziness in the streets. Most French people are on summer holidays that day (14th July) so we aren’t even around.
In Norway this is a big party but also serious business. Before being a wealthy oil nation Norway was the poorest and least free Scandinavian nations, and freedom from the “big Brothers” Sweden and Danemark who were much bigger empires is something people want to remember vividly: now we are free to be our own nation.
I personally love this day because the joy that one feels in the streets of Norway is so intense that it feels like pure collective freedom. So my last rule would be: Be in Norway for that day. Don’t take a getaway weekend to your parents on that day, because this is not just another day in Norway, and it is definitely worth it! (And when do you get to see the Queen and King waving at you from the castle if not on the 17th of May?).