Seven snapshots of Syttende Mai

A brief pictorial history of Grunnlovsdagen, compiled by M. Michael Brady

Photo: Grunnlovsgivende forsamling
Non-amended, original version of the Norwegian Constitution.

The celebration of Syttende Mai as we know it today started unpretentiously after the Constitution was signed at Eidsvoll on May 17, 1814.

Photo: National Library of Norway
Market Square battle, 1829 in Kristiania.

At first, only students and other young patriots celebrated the day. At the time, Norway was in a union with Sweden; for several years, King Karl Johan of Norway and Sweden was reluctant to allow celebrations of Syttende Mai and briefly banned them in the 1820s. The public disagreed with the king, which led to armed confrontation in 1829, when soldiers tried to subdue the celebration at the Market Square in Kristiania (now Oslo)

Photo: Photographer unknown; National Library of Norway archive
Picture postcard published on Centennial of Constitution, depicting 50th Anniversary at Frognerseteren, on hill above Oslo.

In 1833, celebration of Syttende Mai was officially permitted. By 1864, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, celebration of the day had become an integral part of the life in the country, and Bank Manager F.H. Frølich set up a monument commemorating the anniversary at Frognerseteren, in the hills above Oslo.

Photo: Public domain; vintage photo owned by Joachim Kruger
A Drekar (Dragon-prowed longship of the Viking Age) in Bergen harbor in 1889.

In 1889 in Bergen, an anchored Viking Age Drekar was the speaker’s stage for the Syttende Mai celebration, and a banner associated with it is carried in parades to this day.

Photo: Public domain
17th of May 1893, painting by Christian Krohg (1852-1925).

Then in 1893 artist Christian Krohg painted the Syttende Mai celebration, featuring the Norwegian flag without the Norwegian-Swedish union emblem, for its time a daring protest.

Photo: Public domain; war photographer Ole Friele Backer (1907-1947)
Norwegian children celebrating 17th of May in Trafalger Square, London.

Thereafter, the popularity of Syttende Mai celebrations grew steadily and became part of the country’s tradition, ever so much so after the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905 and the start of a new royal house with King Haakon VII as the ruling monarch. From 1940 to 1945, when Norway was occupied, celebrating Syttende Mai was prohibited by the forces of occupation but celebrated elsewhere by Norwegians in exile. In 1942, Syttende Mai was celebrated with a Norwegian children’s parade in Trafalger Square in London.

Photo: City of Oslo Archives
Royal family on palace balcony, May 17, 1946; from left: King Haakon VII, Crown Princess Märtha, Prince Harald, Princess Ragnhild, Princess Astrid, and Crown Prince Olaf. After the end of the war, Syttende Mai celebrations resumed in 1946 in Oslo with the royal family watching the children’s parade from the balcony of the Palace.

The royal family watching the parade from the Palace balcony has become part of the tradition of Syttende Mai. Curiously, they look southward down Oslo’s main street, the route of the parade, named Karl Johans Gate, in honor of the king who once briefly banned celebration of the day.

This article originally appeared in the May 5, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.