Celebrating Syttende Mai

Eidsvoll riksraad 1814

"Riksforsamlingen på Eidsvoll 1814" by Oscar Wergeland. Source: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A look at the history and significance of Norway’s Constitution Day on May 17

Staff Compilation

Norwegian American Weekly

Every year on May 17, Norwegians across the world celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day. Many people believe the day honors Norwegian independence, but the day actually commemorates the Norwegian Constitution,  which is the oldest single-document national constitution in Europe in use today. Known as syttende mai (17th of May), or Grunnlovsdagen (Constitution Day), or Nasjonaldagen (the national day), the history of the constitution illustrates Norway’s commitment to freedom, equality and democratic principles.

Norway’s journey to its constitution began at the time of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, when Norway was under the rule of Denmark. Denmark lost its fleet due to its connections with France, and under the Treaty of Kiel in 1814, King Frederick VI of Denmark was forced to cede Norway to Sweden to prevent an occupation of Jutland. The Crown Prince of Denmark, Christian Fredrik, was less than pleased with the arrangement as the viceroy of Norway, and he began a Norwegian independence movement in January 1814.

The crown prince invited prominent Norwegians to a meeting to be held at his friend Carsten Anker’s estate in Eidsvoll, Norway, to discuss the situation. He informed them of his intent to resist Swedish hegemony and claim the Norwegian crown as his inheritance. But at the emotional session in Eidsvoll on Feb. 16, 1814, his advisors convinced him that Norway’s claim to independence should rather be based on the principle of self-determination, and that he should act as a regent for the time being. The council also advised the regent to hold elections and oaths of independence all over the country, thus choosing delegates to a constitutional assembly.

Arriving in Christiania (now Oslo) on Feb. 19, Christian Frederik proclaimed himself regent of Norway. All congregations met to swear loyalty to the cause of Norwegian independence and to elect delegates to a constitutional assembly to commence at Eidsvoll on April 10. Christian Frederik sent letters through his personal network to governments throughout Europe, assuring them that he was not leading a Danish conspiracy to reverse the terms of the treaty of Kiel, but rather his efforts reflected the Norwegian will for self-determination.

During five weeks of the spring of 1814, the constitution was written. The constitution was ratified by the assembly on May 16, and signed the following day, the latter date now celebrated as the Norwegian Constitution Day.

The Norwegian constitution was inspired by the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French revolution in 1789. The constitution was considered one of the most radically democratic constitutions in the world at that time. The principle of separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches was directly inspired by the U.S. and French systems.

One significant shift from the republican constitutions was the retention of monarchy. Importing republicanism was seen as trying to emulate the French and Americans directly, something the lawmakers at Eidsvoll sought to avoid.

The celebration of May 17 began spontaneously among students and others from early on. At the time, the King of Sweden Carl Johan perceived the celebrations a kind of protest and disregard Swedish sovereignty. It was not until 1833 that anyone ventured to hold a public address on behalf of the day. That year, official celebration was initiated by the monument of politician Christian Krogh, known to have stopped the king from gaining too much personal power. The address was held by poet Henrik Wergeland, thoroughly witnessed and accounted for by a Swedish spy, sent by the King himself.

Wergeland is credited with making 17th of May a celebratory day for the children – the future of the country – rather than a day of patriotic pride.

After 1864, the day became more established, and the first children’s promenade was launched in Christiania, in a parade consisting only of boys. This initiative was taken by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, although Wergeland made the first known children’s promenade at Eidsvoll around 1820. It was only in 1899 that girls were allowed to join in the parade.

In 1905, Norway peacefully achieved its independence from Sweden, and Prince Carl of Denmark was named to the throne, taking the name King Haakon VII. Since then, the 17th of May has also honored Norway’s royal family. The 17th of May took a new form of significance with the end of World War II, which ended in Norway on May 8, 1945 – just nine days before that year’s Constitution Day.

A noteworthy aspect of the Norwegian Constitution Day is its very non-military nature. All over Norway, children’s parades with an abundance of flags form the central elements of the celebration. Each elementary school district arranges its own parade with marching bands between schools. The parade takes the children through the community, often making stops at homes of senior citizens, war memorials, etc. The longest parade is in Oslo, where some 100,000 people come to participate in the main festivities. The massive Oslo parade includes some 100 schools, marching bands, and passes the royal palace where the royal family greet the people from the main balcony.

Typically a school’s children parade will consist of some senior school children carrying the school’s official banner, followed by a handful of other older children carrying full size Norwegian flags, and the school’s marching band. After the band the rest of the school children follow with hand sized flags, often with the junior forms first, and often behind self made banners for each form or even individual class. Nearby kindergartens may also have been invited to join in. As the parade passes, bystanders often join in behind the official parade, and follow the parade back to the school.

The graduating class from the Norwegian equivalent of high school – known as russ – has its own celebration on May 17, staying up all night and making the rounds through the community. The russ also have their own parades later in the day, usually around 4 or 5 p.m. In this parade, russ will parade through the street with their russcars carrying signs and pickets.

All parades begin or end with speeches. Both adults and older children are invited to speak. After the parades, there are games for the children, and often a lot of ice cream, soda, sweets and hot dogs are consumed. Constitution Day is celebrated in Norwegian communities across the world.

Although 17th of May is the National Day of Norway, it is an inclusive kind of nationalism. Anyone who happens to be in Norway or with a Norwegian community can expect to have a flag thrust into their hand and is welcome to join in with all activities.

Gratulerer med dagen!

This article was originally published in the May 6, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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