Celebrating the big day the Bergen way!
Here comes Syttende Mai
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
Yes, it’s a day of celebration, and for me, as editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, it’s always a hard choice as to where I’ll be on the 17th of May. With so many parties going on all over Norway and North America, it is impossible to be there and cover them all—as much as my heart is there with everyone, wherever they may be.
But outside of my hometown of Seattle (where I am staying this year), a big part of my heart will be in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city. Bergen is Seattle’s Norwegian sister city, and from my visits there as president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, I know that it is a very special place. Not only is it the mountains, the forests, and the fjords—and a lot of rain like here in Seattle—it’s the people. The Bergensers are a special lot, so open-minded and friendly. My heart will be with all my friends there on the 17th of May, and I thank so many of them who have so generously contributed content for the Syttende Mai issue. They are special, and they have made this issue special for us.
With a delegation from Norway House heading over to Bergen to celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day and my own affinity for the “City of Seven Mountains,” it somehow seemed natural to focus on Syttende Mai in Bergen. While everyone is perhaps somewhat familiar with the big celebration in Oslo with its famous children’s parade—barnetoget—Bergen does things a little differently, with connections to the city’s history, unique personality, and way of life.
Drum roll …
So, get ready, the 17th of May is coming! In Bergen, the day starts early to the sounds of drums and brass bands, as a procession heads out to the location for the traditional celebratory speeches at Festplassen.
If you have ever been in Bergen during a holiday or festival, it’s likely that you’ve heard the sounds of drums from one of the city’s buekorps, translated as “bow corps” or and “archery brigade,” and if you are there for the 17th of May, you will hear them marching and beating on their drums through the city; they are a prominent part of the 17. mai parade.
The buekorps are traditional youth marching organizations, with a special link to Bergen’s history. Called bataljoner (battalions), they were first formally organized in the 1850s. They are run entirely by the youth who make them up, each battalion belonging to a certain part of town. Their members range in age between about 7 to 20, and, of course, there are adults involved to offer their support.
And like any Norwegian town or city, Bergen also has its share of brass bands, and they are also out in full force for the 17th of May. There are korps from schools and community organizations, for both young and old, and on the 17th of May, they march through the streets of Bergen. They will certainly wake you up, if you haven’t already gotten ready for the day’s festivities.
Hour by hour
There is so much going on in Bergen on the 17th of May that it makes one wonder how one could ever choose what to do: you simply cannot run out of options. The hour-by-hour schedule for the day’s events are published on a website published by Bergen’s 17th of May Committee at 17-mai.no/fra-time-til-time-17-mai (in Norwegian) to help you map out your plan for the day.
For many, the official speeches in the morning that take place at Festplassen are a high point. There are traditional ceremonies with local dignitaries that are going on in every town and city in Norway on May 17. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Norway’s Constitution Day, and this year’s speeches are expected to resound profoundly, with freedom under siege in Ukraine and other parts of the world; I suspect that these words will carry more meaning than ever.
In Bergen, it is also a tradition to lay a wreath over the statue of Christian Michelsen, the Bergen-born shipping magnate who became Norway’s first prime minister in 1905.
There are also church services held in the morning, including a festive worship service in the nynorsk language in Bergen Cathedral, another time for contemplation as well as celebration.
Soon thereafter, the flag procession starts, and there are flags, flags, and more flags. It should also be mentioned, that you will see the people of Bergen wearing their Sunday best on this very special day. Those who have bunads, young and old alike, will put them on out of tradition and respect. Typically, everyone wears red, white, and blue ribbons, the 17. mai sløyfer.
One is also bound to see some of the high school graduation class, the russ wearing special red or blue overalls, and they are generally a lively addition to the day.
Like its sister city Seattle, the port city Bergen is a city of boats, and they also celebrate on the 17th of May. The city’s flagship is the Statsraad Lehmkuhl, considered by many as the world’s most beautiful tall ship. This year, the Lehmkuhl will not be in port, as it circumnavigates the globe as part of the One Ocean Expedition for climate research and awareness. There will be plenty of boats to go around in Bergen, though. To see them in the fjord is a sight to behold.
Music, music, music
Bergen is known as one of the world’s most musical cities, the birthplace of Edvard Grieg and home to the Grieg Academy at the University of Bergen. The city is also home to Europe’s oldest symphony orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic, and many famous contemporary performers, including Sissel, Aurora, and Kygo. It is thus not surprising that there are concerts going on all over the city on Norway’s national holiday.
Community brass bands and choirs figure prominently, but there is a large variety of music, and guest artists are always featured on the program. In the evening, Gospel Bergen will perform in Johanneskirken on the hill. Somehow, there is something for everyone, with live music to enjoy throughout the day.
It’s a party!
Over the years, Bergen has received some criticism for partying a little too hard on the 17th of May, but nobody loves a party like the Bergensers. Granted, there is a bit of a carnival atmosphere, with food stands and other booths for selling wares (but note that helium balloons are now banned because of environmental considerations), but no one goes hungry, and everyone seems to have a good time. Health regulations are in place to ensure the no one gets sick from the candy, ice cream, and traditional Norwegian hot dogs—pølse—that are sold each year.
Kick up your heels
With so many people in traditional costumes for the day, it seems only natural that there should also be folk dancing on May 17, and in the evening a big folk dance to the sounds of traditional folk instruments takes place. For tourists, this is an opportunity to experience a little of the old Norwegian folk culture in practice in a living situation, with all the colorful sights and sounds. Some may even want to join in on the fun.
Torchlight parade, prizes, and fireworks
With so much excitement in the air, some wish that this day could go forever, as things lead up to a grand finale. Toward the end of the evening, a torchlight procession goes from the Bergenshus Fortress to Festplassen. Suddenly, the tops of the mountains are lit up, and prizes are awarded for the best entries in the day’s parade.
And if that isn’t enough, each May 17, the night skies are set aglow with colorful, bright fireworks shortly before midnight, the perfect end to a big day of celebration, Syttende Mai, the Bergen way.
Also see The history of 17. mai in Bergen in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.
For more information on the 17th of May celebrations in Bergen, visit 17-mai.no.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.