When I first landed in Oslo from London I kept looking around, wondering where all of the people were. I went out during rush hour, checked out the city’s main shopping street on a Saturday and even took a walk through central Oslo on a Friday night in search of a crowd. It was a big adjustment moving from a city of 7 million to one with barely half a million. But there is one day of the year that people pour into the streets and the big train stations are as busy as your normal weekday afternoon on Oxford Circus: May 17, Norway’s National Day.
Syttende mai, which means 17th of May, is Constitution Day. Judging by the fact that the gym is actually closed on National Day (it’s open for six hours on Christmas), it’s the most important celebration of the year for Norwegians. It’s a day of tradition which starts with a breakfast of smoked salmon on bread, topped with lemon juice, mayonnaise and scrambled eggs. However sophisticated breakfast is the rest of the day is far more relaxed: lunch is as simple as hot dogs and ice cream
Locals wear either their traditional folk costumes, called bunad, or suits and dresses to celebrate the signing of the constitution on May 17, 1814, which declared Norway independent. For most of the tiny Scandinavian country’s history, Norway has either belonged to Denmark or Sweden, so this independence was a long time coming and is celebrated with pride and vigor.
After breakfast most of Oslo heads to the center of the city to see the tog, a children’s parade. The tog starts by the seaside, proceeds past the Parliament and down a famous street, Karl Johans Gate which is lined with Norwegian flags, and then passes the Royal Palace where the King and his family wave to the public.
Children either march wearing their bunads, carrying flags or in a marching band.
The country is awash in the colors of the Norwegian flag, which is visible everywhere, and chants of hip hip hurrah, to celebrate Norway’s independence, come from all directions.
The day ends with a family dinner and plenty of cakes and sweets. And don’t be surprised if a complete stranger gives you a hug and says gratulerer med dagen! All reserve and propriety are thrown out the door for this special day.
Hip hip hurrah – I finally found a crowd!