Every Rule You Should(‘nt) Break on Norway’s National Day

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book
Read the first chapters for free on http://www.afroginthefjord.com/book


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.

Norwegians and a few flags on the 17th of May
Norwegians and a few flags on the 17th of May

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?).

32 thoughts on “Every Rule You Should(‘nt) Break on Norway’s National Day

  1. About the flag thing. Personally I don’t really care what flags people have, and love when I si costumes of any nation. Put it would be pretty rude if someone started celebrating himself in another person’s birthday :p

    + Always say ”gratulerer med dagen” when you greet people. It means ”happy birth day”

    1. Would you require everyone to wear a nametag with your name on your birthday? That seems ruder to me.

      Frankly, I’m tired of the people who push this “Only Norwegian flags”-agenda, being so full of themselves that they can’t stand diversity in any forms. You can’t possibly know anyone’s motivation for waving the flag they do, but somehow, this “Our day”-brigade assumes that the person is saying that the other country is superior, and then they choose to be wildly and irrationally offended.

      Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of 17th May, and I’m glad I’m spending it abroad this year, as the 200th anniversary undoubtedly will be way over the top. I will still drink through the entire day, though…

      1. I do not know where you got the name that thing from, and I disagree with most of what you are saying.

        The whole point is celebrating Norway’s birthday, so it is not ”our” day, everybody can take part, it is ”Norway’s day”.

      2. I can’t say I recognize myself in your characteristic; “so full of themselves that they can’t stand diversity in any forms”, I love diversity, in absolutely most forms! (: And I would like to mention, that I don’t really think any one has a bad/evil motivation for bringing different flags, and I would never say anything to those I see, but I still think it is sort of an eye-sore :p Especially the Danish and Swedish flag, being that we are celebrating our freedom from exactly them. I am not -very- upset about this, I wouldn’t want it forbidden or anything, I just read a completely different symbolism in flags than in national costumes.

  2. You got it right on most items, except the drinking from morning part. Soem do this, but the majority are as sober as on other days including driving cars when needed. I really enjjoy your post and have sent link to your blog to many foreign friends og mine. Keep it up!

  3. I agree with Paul about the drinking habits inside the family. A shot of homemade egg liqueur is an usual welkome drink (the one who is driving gets Zabaglione). After that, there is not much alcohol served. Anyway, the “russ” are drinking, for everyone…
    Thank you for you blogg, I have been leaving i Norway for nearly 30 years, I agree and laugh about many thing you write.

  4. I study in Denmark this year, but I had to get my self home for the 17th of May! I love how the national day is such a big deal here, and I can’t wait to wear my bunad 😀 In my family there is not a tradition for the breakfast drinking, but those who do not drive might drink for dinner. But every year is a chance to beat your own record at ice-cream eating! Mine is five (;

    PS: My personal opinion on the foreign costume/foreign flag thing: I LOVE to see foreign costumes, I find it so interesting, and they often are very pretty. But I do not like to see foreign flags much. I some how feel, that wearing your nation of origins national costume, represents your inheritances, but waving your nation of origins flag, represents the nation itself. Does it make sense? :p

  5. Dag: “I do not know where you got the name that thing from, and I disagree with most of what you are saying.

    The whole point is celebrating Norway’s birthday, so it is not ”our” day, everybody can take part, it is ”Norway’s day”.”

    The name tag analogy was in order to point out that people could be having other flags to mark their identity, while still celebrating Norway. It’s not anyone’s place to assume that someone waving another flag do it just to insult people.

    If it wasn’t clear, most of my last post wasn’t really directed at you, it was just a natural train of thought from the little answer I gave to you.

    However, the entire birthday analogy is very inaccurate. Countries don’t have birthdays, that’s just something we tell children to help them understand the national day concept. If Norway had a birthday, it would be 7th June, marking the anniversary of our independence. 17th of May is Constitution Day, celebrating the constitution, not everything Norwegian. Said constitution has a lovely paragraph about how freedom of expression needs to be present in the country. And yet people (Not necessarily you) want to celebrate it by restricting people’s expressional rights…

  6. I enjoyed reading your French expat perspective! It was a fun and meaningful 17.mai for me, my seventh one here as an American expat.

  7. Apparently, according to a friend of mine in Frederikstad, he felt compelled to mow his lawn during the celebrations, but was advised that it might invite a friendly visit from the local constabulary. Not unlike hanging the St. Georges flag out of the window during England’s regular world cup demise.

  8. I feel the need to explain the “party BEFORE exams”-thing. Back in the day (read: in the sixties + early seventies), the exams were done before may 17th and constitution day marked the beginning of russetida. Some teenagers took the partying a bit too far, and some responsible adults somewhere decided that placing exams in the middle of the party period would make them tone it down a bit (it is possible that the official explanation is more along the lines of “teachers need more time to go through the curriculum”, I’m telling the story the way my uncle, who was 19 at the time, told it to me). I don’t know why they placed russetida before the exams instead of just delaying it and partying in June, but I suspect it was so it would still encompass may 17th. There are also quite a few teenagers right now who are pushing to reinstate the old system, or moving the celebration to June, but I don’t know how many they are.

  9. Regarding the hand held flag:
    1. The pole should always be pointed towards the sky. Always. Even when not held in your hand. If you need to put it away for some seconds (i.e. while rearranging your clothes or tying your shoes), ask someone to hold the flag for you or place it securely in a corner, with the pole pointing towards the sky.
    2. The flag itself must never touch the ground.
    3. The flag may be used to greet people you meet. The appropriate way is to wave the flagg while you say “hurra, [name of greeted person]” or “gratulerer med dagen”.

    Nice article, by the way. …and about the drinking; Do not drink and drive. Never. Not even on th 17th of May.


  10. I live in Oslo and love to see people wearing their national dresses from other countries! I think we Norwegians should take it as a huge compliment: People from all over the world dressing up in the nicest clothes they have to celebrate our constitution and the wonderful country we are lucky to live in. Only bigoted people get offended by that, and in general the whims of bigoted people should be ignored. I feel the same way about the entire flag issue, although I also see why that is more sensitive to people as the flag is seen more than clothes as a national, patriotic symbol.

    I also love May 17th. The city is crowded as hell but everyone is so happy and smiling, greeting strangers in a way they rarely do. Children get to eat half a dozen of ice cream and drink so much soda they physically manage to. It’s a nice tradition. The entire reason we started with the child parade in the first place is also sort of interesting:

    When we were in a “union” with Sweden (notice the “”s, it wasn’t exactly an equal union) all expressions of national sovereignity or Norwegian identity was forbidden. There was actually a famous fight in the city centre of Oslo once when youth arranged a May 17th celebration and were attacked by the police, a massive fist fight ensued. The famous Norwegian author and poet Henrik Wergeland was one of the initiators.

    The Swedes would have military parades on their national day, for Norwegians it almost seemed a mocking reminder that Sweden were “bigger” than us and we couldn’t win if we fought them. The entire military parade thing became almost sickening. So when the Swedish king finally gave up and permitted May 17th celebrations (if you are confused about this, we were not independent although we had a constitution, we were in a union with Sweden until 1905, the constiution was signed in 1814), military parades would 1) be a bit over the top and probably not condoned by the Swedish overlords and 2) seem unfitting. Thus, we made parades with our children instead, the national future, reminding Sweden that we are many, we are a people, we are a nation. So it was quite political in the beginning. 🙂

  11. I hate it when people use foreign flags on 17. Mai.
    Hate, hate, hate, hate it.
    Especially Danish and Sweedish ones.

    Why? Because it`feels like an insult. We`re celebrating Norway`s birthday. (Ok, our independence, mostly) And someone decides to wave a flag for another country… When the most important part of 17. Mai is that Norway is our very own, independent country who no longer has any influence from “the outside”.

    Yeah, I get that this is exactly what was stated in the article as well, but really, it`s how I view it. Honestly, the best comparison I can make up is when someone starts hailing Satan in the Church. Preferably right beside the Pope. (Said from a non-religious POV)

    Seeing people in other national costumes don`t really bother me. I don`t like it, but I don`t dislike it either.

    BUT! When people start wearing a hijab/glitter-crown/turban/kilt/whatever ALONG with their Bunad, it irks me that they kinda “destroy” our national costume by changing and turning it into something else. The Bunad is supposed to be worn as it is designed. With Bunad shoes, not high heeled, hot red, knee-high boots.

    Anyway, what`s the point of using a good 35 000 kr on something, if you`re not gonna use it properly.

    It`s like when someone buys an iPhone, but then later installs Android on it. Only 10 times worse. (The flag is the worst, though!)
    Either get an iPhone, or an Android people!!!

    (Sorry if I seem petty and narrow-minded here, but that`s probably because I am when it comes to 17. Mai :P)

    1. Totally, utterly, completely agree with you on the flag thing

      Think of it this way; Imagine raising a non-US flag in USA on 4th July. Scandal!

      If you are attending Norway Day celebrations in another country than Norway, a Norway+my new country sort of combination is fine. As a sign of respect for the country you’re in.

      Norwegian parades in Norway on Norway Day should have Norwegian flags. Only.

      1. Well, foreign flags on 4th of July is pretty common… Patriotic as the Americans might be, they are also much less sensitive when it comes to this.

        Anja’s attitude irks me. Talk about interpreting the worst. People wearing hijab with the bunad are trying their best to show that they are – and feel – a part of Norway. People waving other flags want to show their respect, as a ‘greeting’ from their country. It feels like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t-kind of thing. Even if you try your best to fit in and celebrate the day, you have narrow-minded people judging you. That is almost a racist attitude, at the very least an extremely nationalistic one: “do it exactly our way, or don’t do it at all”.

  12. This is very useful information for those of you who have studied abroad, let us know in the comments if you can think of any more good reasons to study abroad and whether you agree with the list so far! Thanks again for the post.

Leave a Reply to jennydb91 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.