Barnetog, an enduring 17. mai tradition

A day of music, marching, merriment, and memories


Photo: Vegard Wivestad Grøtt / NTB
In Oslo, the barnetog, the largest in all of Norway, goes up Karl Johans gate to the royal palace.

Jim Nelson
Chesterton, Ind.

Children’s well-being and education have long been high priorities for Norwegians. To Norwegians, it seems only natural that children should have a prominent place in celebrations of their national holiday, Syttende Mai. Although each city, town, and rural community has its own distinctive Syttende Mai parade, the barnetog is usually the first part of the parade.

Barnetoget, “the children’s parade,” has been a major part of Norway’s celebration of Syttende Mai for many years. Like the borgertog, the parade for adult citizens, the barnetog wasn’t originally allowed while Norway was ruled by Sweden, following the adoption of the constitution in 1814.

It was only recognized as a regular Syttende Mai observance by King Haakon VII in 1906, one year after Norway gained complete independence. Also in 1906, King Haakon began the tradition of the royal family standing on the palace balcony, greeting all of the school parade units. (Princess Ingrid Alexandra, now 19, is in the fifth generation of Norwegian royals to follow this tradition.)

A succession of Swedish kings gradually warmed to the idea of allowing Norwegians to publicly celebrate their limited degree of independence. King Carl Johan (reigned 1818-1844) viewed celebrations of Norway’s new constitution as acts of anti-Swedish revolt and insurrection and had them banned.

His son, King Oscar I (reigned 1844-59), moved with his family from Paris to Stockholm at the age of 11 in 1810. Oscar quickly learned Swedish and enjoyed his new life in Sweden. He rapidly learned Norwegian when he was appointed governor-general of Norway for 12 months in 1824 and temporarily moved to Christiania (Oslo). As king, Oscar demonstrated more Norway-friendly views than his father.

King Oscar’s children were thus raised with a more open attitude to Norway than their father had been. Oscar I’s son, Karl XIV of Norway (reigned 1859-1872), was governor-general of Norway in 1856 and 1857. He was a popular king, enacting several laws for social and legal reform. By the time the first official barnetog took place, the stage was finally set for a warmer reception than might have been possible a few years earlier.

Photo: Paul Kleiven / NTB
Children gather for the barnetog at Eidsvoll, where the Norwegian Constitution was signed in 1814.

School administrator Peter Qvam held a parade for the children of his school on May 17, 1869. The prominent author and playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson joined Qvam in advocating for children’s parades. They held public meetings and published newspaper articles promoting the idea of a barnetog. As a result, the first recorded barnetog took place on May 17, 1870, in Christiania. Around 1,200 schoolboys marched in the downtown parade, which ended in front of the royal palace.

At that point, the pupils sang “Kongesangen”(the king’s song), the Norwegian version of “God Save The King.” (The melody was later used in “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” the American patriotic song.) This parade included only male pupils. The first barnetog to include girls didn’t take place until 1889, when pupils from Ragna Nielsen’s school for girls were invited to participate.

In Oslo and Norway’s other large cities today, pupils from each school (grades 1 through 10) line up with their classes for the march. In Oslo, the barnetog goes up Karl Johans gate. Each school unit lines up behind its school banner, suspended from a tall standard. If a school has its own band, the skolekorps (school band) leads the school pupils, playing from a repertoire of four or five traditional marches.The younger children often have little cheers that they have practiced beforehand, like this one: “Hurra for han som stifta da’n! Hurra for Henrik Wergeland! Hurra-Hurra-Hurra!” (Hurrah for him who founded the day! Hurrah for Henrik Wergeland!) They may even have a cheer unique to their school.

My son Andreas attended Tåsen school, Oslo’s largest school at that time, in the mid 1990s. Here was their school cheer: “Hva var kua uten båsen? Hva var nøkker’n uten låsen? Hva var Oslo uten Tåsen!” (What would the cow do without it’s barn stall? What would the key be without its lock? What would Oslo be without Tåsen?)

First as a university student, and later as a school parent, school teacher, band director and music ensemble member, I’ve attended and participated in more than 20 Syttende Mai celebrations in Norway. The variety of Syttende Mai formats, in different locations, might seem surprising. Here are some of the nuances I experienced while living in Norway:

Photo: Annika Byrde / NTB
Skolekorps, school brass bands, have always been an important part of 17th of May celebrations.

In May 1995, when my son Andreas was at Tåsen skole, only a short distance from our apartment, Tåsen was selected to participate in the big Syttende Mai barnetog downtown.

We got up early on the 17th to take Andreas downtown, by the Sognsvann electric train line, to the parade lineup area. After the parade was over, we returned to the school. The children reassembled and marched to the Tåsen neighborhood pleiehjem (home for the aged and infirm) in a shorter barnetog.

The children stood outside the home and sang patriotic songs for the residents. Afterward, the Tåsen school parents’ organization served ice cream bars and juice or soft drinks to the children and adult chaperons.

We were back home again by about 4 p.m., as many families had their own plans for get-togethers with friends and relatives during the evening. In May 1996, we just repeated the short march and concert at our local nursing home, followed by ice cream and beverages, a much easier day, indeed!

When I taught school on Bømlo and Espevær islands, near Haugesund, I was also the band director at Hilles­tveit skule on Bømlo.

On May 17, our 24-piece brass band boarded the Espevær ferry boat at 9 a.m. in a thick fog. The boat was equipped with radar, and we arrived at Espevær about 15 minutes later.

As we entered the harbor, the fog cleared and the sun shone brightly. On the pier was the Espevær school band, 32 strong, greeting us with a Syttende Mai march and a cheering crowd of around 200, nearly all of the island’s residents.

We all walked to the nearby community center. With my back to a nearby 30-foot rock wall, I directed the combined bands in the national anthem. Everyone else sang, of course! Then the bands played two more patriotic songs.

Finally, we adjourned to the community center for Norwegian pølser med lompe or pølser med brød – Norwegian-style wieners, served in either small lefse rounds called lomper, or in hot dog buns. Then there was ice cream and solbærsaft (black currant juice) for the children, and food with coffee for the adults.

We then boarded our boat again and were back on Bømlo by noon, in time for my little band of 5th- and 6th-graders to march in three parades through our village of Langevåg! First was the barnetog, then came the borgertog, and finally came the krigsveteranertog (the war veterans’ parade). There was a barnetog and school band marching in all three parades, doing the same songs, for the same audience at each parade. The Langevåg parades ended with the laying of a wreath at the local World War II memorial to local people killed in the war.

The variety in Syttende Mai celebrations continued to surprise me. From the town of Ølen, where I had my major teaching assignment, I drove out to the hamlet of Bjoa on Syttende Mai. There I marched with the five-piece Bjoa skulekorps (school band) in a steady rain, as we played three patriotic songs for the villagers. Most of them had turned out, as rain was not a hindrance for Syttende Mai festivities!

Photo: Jim Nelson
First-graders in Fredrikstad, Norway, anxiously wait for the barnetog to start.

In the small city of Holmestrand, on Drammensfjord, I directed the massed bands from Holmestrand school and community, over 100 strong, in a rehearsal for the parade. I wore my winter coat and cap, and all of the musicians were wearing raincoats on top of their uniforms. We were standing in an open park, not 100 feet from the coast. It was just below freezing, and a stiff 30-mile-an-hour wind pelted us with sleet and icy raindrops. The wind actually blew some of the 9- and 10-year-olds down. Sheets of music were blown away and retrieved by band parents. After our 40-minute rehearsal, we lined up for the parade.

The weather continued as described, and we marched through Holmestrand’s streets, which were lined with throngs of people dressed in bunads, and even a number of young mothers in miniskirts and high heels, with one or two preschoolers in tow.

The children marched bravely in their barnetog, accompanied by parents and teachers, and the bands played well. Once again, I saw that inclement weather was not going to stop Norwegians from enjoying their national holiday!

And, at each and every Syttende Mai event, the majority of participants were the country’s children, the backbone of the barnetog and of Norway’s future.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson is a Norwegian-American scholar and musician, who lived and taught in Norway for over 18 years. Nelson is an expert in the Norwegian immigration to the United States, Norwegian folk music, and Scandinavian immigrant music. Now based in Chesterton, Ind., he continues to perform and is president of the Scandiana Sons of Norway lodge.