The 17th of May - Norwegian Constitution Day

On the 10th of April, 1814, representatives of the first National Assembly in Norway gathered in Eidsvoll to write the first modern Norwegian constitution. Norway had since 1536 been part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but in the year of 1814, the situation in Scandinavia began to change. Denmark was on the losing side of the Napoleonic wars, and as part of the peace negotiations had to renounce supremacy over Norway.

17maj01Oscar Wergeland "Eidsvol 1814."

Why do we celebrate the 17th of May?

Norwegians hoped that they would eventually become an independent state, and they chose the Danish crown prince Christian Fredrik to be a new king. The Prince was very popular in Norway, but the powerful bourgeois families did not want to let him rule alone. Therfore, the first National Assembly was convened with the aim to write a constitution, so that the country could become a modern parliamentary monarchy. Representatives from the Assembly were elected through voting in the first national elections.

The National Assembly started their session on the 10th of April, and the final version of the constitution was adopted on the 17th of May 1814, and Christiaan Fredrik was elected as the King of Norway. However, according to the peace negotiations after the Napoleonic wars, Norway now belonged to Sweden. The new Swedish king, Karl Johan, decided that Norway should maintain its own constitution, but Christian Fredrik had to resign and surrender his power to the Assembly. There was a short-lived armed conflict between Sweden and Norway that ended on the 14th of August, and Norway accepted Karl Johan as their king and the new Union of Sweden and Norway was formed, and would last until 1905.

Although Norway received a new king, Norway's Union with Sweden gave them greater autonomy than they had had during the Union with Denmark. Thus the 17th of May is an important date in the history of Norway, and is today celebrated as the most important national holiday.

17maj0217th of May in Oslo.
Photo credit: Asgeir Helgestad/Artic Light AS

How is it celebrated?

The central part of the celebration is the procession, which all students in primary and secondary schools as well as school bands participate in. Processions are organized in all major cities but the biggest is, of course, in Oslo, and lasts most of the day. The procession in Oslo goes to the Royal Palace, where the Royal Family stand on the balcony and exchange waves and greetings with children and other gathered citizens. The whole city is decorated with Norwegian flags, and many people decorate their homes or carry flags with them. It is also customary for people to wear traditional costumes from their region - or bunad, as they call it in Norwegian. These folk costumes are very valuable. They are passed from generation to generation, and the Norwegians wear them on special occasions, such as the graduation celebration or weddings. The 17th of May is a day when you can see a large number of costumes from different parts of Norway on Oslo's streets. If you are in town, it is customary to eat grilled hot dogs and ice cream, which is considered to be the typical food for the 17th of May.

17maj03The Royal family waving from the balcony
Photo credit: Stian Lysberg Solum, Scanpix

Many people choose not to wear costumes or to go to watch the parade and instead celebrate the 17th of May with family or friends. If the weather is nice it is usually celebrated outside with barbecue and drinks. It is common to drink champagne and dress festively. Most people who do not wear folk costumes are dressed in the colors of the flag - red, blue and white, or have decorative ribbons in these colors. People also sing the national anthem and other national songs.

Norwegians are very proud people and The Constitution Day means a lot to all residents of Norway. 17th of May is also celebrated in other places where there are a lot of people of Norwegian origin, like in USA, especially in New York and Seattle, as well as in Brisbane, Australia.

If you happen to be in Norway on 17th of May, go to the city centre for a little while to see the procession, or spend the day with Norwegian friends outside. There are a few nations who celebrate their national day with so much joy and pride.

17maj0417th of May in New York
Photo credit: Peter Adamik

The project ‘Nordic Reading Corner’ is financially supported by The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade