A holiday of resilience

The 17th of May

Prince Harald

Photo: NTB scanpix
Crown Prince Harald proudly waves the Norwegian flag as he leads the children’s parade in the vicinity of his family’s home in exile at Pooks Hill, Md., on May 17, 1944.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

On April 1, the 17th of May Committee in Brooklyn, N.Y., voted to cancel this year’s parade. 

Arlene Bakke Rutuelo, parade chair, announced, “It is not a time for celebration, but mourning, as lives are being lost and emergency workers, many our neighbors, are impacted in such a devastating way. We have already begun planning for 2021, when we hope our beloved city has recovered from this unprecedented devastation. Then, a celebration will be long overdue.”

This is only the second time since the parade’s inception in 1952 that it has been canceled. Rutuelo recalled the first time, noting, “The weather report forecasted a terrible rainstorm for the day of the parade. The committee agonized over the safety of the marchers and spectators when deciding to cancel. The funny part was, the rain passed that morning, and the sun was shining by noon. The Greeks had their own parade in Manhattan the same day. They did not cancel and marched to our utter embarrassment! That year, we amended our bylaws to march ‘rain or shine’ each year!”

That change is definitely more in sync with the Norwegian love of the outdoors, no matter what nature delivers. As the saying goes, “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær!”—“There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Another unprecedented event did, however, interrupt the Syttende mai festivities in Norway: the Nazi occupation during World War II. But, before we look at that, it is important to see why the 17th of May is so significant. 

Historical background

As most of us know, May 17 marks the day Norway established its own constitution. It was nearly a millennium in coming, stretching back at least as far as the unification of the old rival chiefdoms under one nation in the mid-800s by Harald Fairhair. Then, in 1015, Olav Haraldsson, who helped Christianize Norway and was later sainted, achieved a more stable union.

By the 14th century, Norway had reached a Golden Age, only to lose half its population to the plague. Weakened Norway entered an alliance with Denmark, and Bergen was claimed by the Hanseatic League. By the late 1300s, Norway was under foreign rule, and would be for nearly 500 years. Finally, in 1814, before being handed from Danish to Swedish rule, Norwegian patriots seized the moment and drafted a constitution, declaring Norway a nation on May 17.

But under Swedish rule, Norwegians were prohibited from reveling in the national Constitution Day. With time, however, recognition of this important day solidified throughout the country.

Wartime darkness

Then in 1940, after just 35 years of true independence, the Germans invaded and occupied Norway. The Nazis not only abolished Syttende mai parades, they also strictly prohibited any symbols or displays of Norwegian nationalism, including singing the national anthem, showing Norwegian flags, and even wearing the colors of the flag. 

The king and queen could no longer wave to the marchers as they passed the palace, and the royal family was forced to escape to the north with the enemy on their heels. 

Syttende mai

Photo: NTB scanpix
Children wearing bunads and waving flags celebrate the Norwegian national day in Brooklyn on May 17, 1943.

American solidarity

On this side of the Atlantic, Norwegian-American communities have celebrated the Norwegian Constitution Day in their own way over the years, weathering storms and setbacks as well.

Celebrations in Brooklyn, one of the densest Norwegian communities in the United States, have seen many changes in style and content, as reported in the May 4, 2018, edition of The Norwegian American. Parades in Seattle, Decorah, Iowa, and Stoughton, Wis., also have long and storied traditions. 

As global events—from world wars to economic struggles like the Great Depression or the recession of 2008—have challenged organizers and celebrators in both Norway and Norwegian America, the holiday has at times become a statement of resistance and solidarity.

When, in 1939, as Hitler was threatening war, a planned celebration at the Norwegian Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair was to be scratched. Instead, it turned into a symbol of resistance. If those in Norway could not commemorate the day, those in Brooklyn would.  

That kind of solidarity defined many American celebrations of Syttende mai in the war years. Although the war ended in 1945, Norwegians continued to suffer, and the Labor Party, with a majority in parliament, worked to rebuild the country in the aftermath. Norwegian Americans continued, meanwhile, to mark the day with solemnity and kept up efforts to assist. 

In 1951, at a 17th of May commemoration at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Norwegian Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen spoke on behalf of the Norwegian people, thanking the Americans for their help.

One year later in 1952, Brooklyn’s annual 17th of May Parade was created.

Today’s new challenge

Over the centuries, Norwegians fought quietly and patiently in a centuries-long battle for their sovereignty, and they have also learned how quickly it could be taken away from them. So is it any wonder that Norwegians on both sides of the Atlantic celebrate Syttende mai with a vengeance to this day?

With all the historical layers built into 17th of May celebrations, one cannot help but be dismayed to hear about this year’s activities being canceled across the country because of COVID-19. 

But, as during the wartime occupation of Norway, we are living in unprecedented times. Now, more than ever, being socially responsible and celebrating in a different but no less profound way, is for the greater good.

Yet in the end, there is always an alternative: Let us challenge ourselves to create new ways to observe Norway’s beloved national holiday. Let us educate ourselves and the public about the significance of the day and share this part of our history and culture with friends and family in a safe way. No, we don’t have to abandon our holiday; we just have to repackage how we celebrate and commemorate Syttende mai.

This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.