A different kind of Syttende mai

Some festivities may be canceled, but Norwegians will still celebrate their national holiday

Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB scanpix
This year many Norwegians will be at home on the 17th of May, but they will still celebrate their national holiday with flair.


Each year, all Norwegians look forward to May 17, Norway’s Constitution Day. The thought of canceling the celebration is something they cannot imagine, yet that is the case for many this spring.

The traditional children’s parade that marches up Karl Johan’s gate, Oslo’s main street leading up to the Royal Palace, has already been canceled, as announced by the city’s May 17 Committee on April 14. “Health comes first,” said committee chair Pia Farstad von Hall.


Cancellations or not, the digital media will allow Norwegians to show their appreciation and “dugnadsånd”—a spirit of comunity and national volunteerism—on May 17.  And eating ice cream, singing, and watching celebrations all over Norway live on TV are activites that are for sure not canceled. Perhaps learning to ride a a bicycle wearing a bunad and holding onto a balloon will be a substitute for the parade for the youngest ones. And, without a doubt, some parades will still go on. “We’ll just have to march 6 feet apart in our own neighborhood streets,” Nathalie, age 6, suggested.

Parade of bunads

The colorful parade in Oslo normally consists of some 60,000 children, who pass by the Royal Palace. The atmosphere is one of joy and inclusion. 

As reported in The Local from Denmark: “If you’re uncertain on how to respond to all the enthusiasm, just smile along, wave your flag, and tell everyone you see, ‘Gratulerer med dagen!’ which literally means ‘Congratulations of the day.’”  Repeat that and the occasional ‘Hipp, Hipp, Hurra!’ and you can’t go wrong.”

And it is true.

The highlight of every Syttende mai is the big children’s parade and the sight of beautiful national costumes filling the streets from south to north. In Oslo, the parade of about 100 schools with marching bands pass by the Royal Family, who wave to them from the balcony each year.  

After the children’s parade, people typically gather at their local school for games and other activities. Visitors may be astonished by the prices of our national costumes, but many are inherited, passed down and altered, and wearing one is far from obligatory (the author of this article, for one, has never owned one). Oslo did not even have its own bunad until the Oslodrakt, the light blue costume from 1947, was designated as the Oslobunad in 2007.

Yes, the celebration with the big parade may be canceled as we know it, but bunads and flags waving in red, white, and blue all over the country, will not be canceled.

Positive signs

The new Minister of Culture Abid Raja is optimistic. The government has given him the responsibility to coordinate this year’s “korona-17. Mai” (corona 17th of May). The celebration may be limited or restricted, but that also opens up new possiblities.

Some activities will go on as usual with a few modifciations. Marching bands will be out in full, but the musicians will have to stand 6 feet apart from each other. Food will be available under the condition that hand sanitizer is available and that people stand 6 feet apart while waiting in line. There will also be outdoor games and activities for the kids, but the same measures for social distancing and hand-washing will have to be in place.

And, of course, flags will be raised and waved all over Norway. Norwegians will put on their bunads just the same, and wreaths will be laid, albeit with fewer observers standing around. But both NRK and TV2 will be on hand with special programming that will be broadcast all over Norway throughout the day.

Raja encourages people to think in an alternative, digital way, and, above all, to be open to the changes that the coronavirus situation may bring about as May 17 approaches. One idea the Ministry of Culture has come up with is to get all of Norway to come out and sing the Norwegian national anthem, “Ja, vi elsker dette landet,” at the same time. This will take place immediately after military salutes at 1 p.m.

“People can stand on the lawn or on the balcony or stay in their houses and just open the window and sing. It might be one of the things we can look back on in a few years’ time, thinking that, yes, 2020 was the year we sang Ja, vi elsker all over the country at the same time,” said Raja to the Norwegian News Agency (NTB).

He might be right. The Christian Council of Norway successfully initiated a “sang-dugnad” at Eastertime. An Easter hymn was sung from porches, in the woods, and courtyards throughout Norway. It can be heard by searching for “Familien i Froland stemte i klokken 11 første påskedag” on YouTube.

Cancellations and “Corona 17th of May” Norway has 356 municipalities, many are small and will no doubt carry on with some of their traditions, especially since some of the municipalities in the north refuse to lift the “søringkarantene,” strict regulations for people coming from the south. The North Cape and some of the small fishing villages have yet to have their first coronavirus case. They are the lucky ones. But in much of the Norway, it will certainly be a different kind of Syttende mai this year.

“We felt that we had no choice but to cancel now,” Haavard Gjestland, chair of the May 17 committee in Porsgrunn, told NRK. 

“Most likely, May 17 will be out of the ordinary. The parade and the biggest concerts in the city center may be canceled,” said Erik Næsgaard, chair of the May 17 Committee in Bergen. 

Prime Minister Erna Solberg confirmed in a Facebook post: “We may have to celebrate May 17 differently this year, but I hope the situation has improved as the date approaches.”

Solberg is from Bergen, one of many Norwegian cities that were attacked on April 9, 1940, when the Germans invaded the country. War veterans Jakob (100) and Olav Jørgen (90) experienced curfews, long lines, food shortages, and the fear of being shot by the Germans, but the coronavirus? “We are going to win this war too!” they told the local newspaper Bergensavisen.

And they are right, of course. We Norwegians will celebrate. We will sing. We will wave our flags, and we will find ways to share our joy. Families will meet online, and children will get more ice cream than ever. Of that, I am sure.

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

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Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2020. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.