The history of 17. mai in Bergen
Always a little different
17. mai i Bergen
As all Bergen natives know and all immigrants learn, Bergen has its traditions and rituals for the celebration of Constitution Day. There’s nothing special about it—all places have their regular 17th of May traditions. But in Bergen, some of these customs are distinctive for the city, with roots that go far back into the 19th century.
Even though Bergen had sent many significant men to the Riksforsamlingen at Eidsvoll (just think of Wilhelm F. K. Christie, who became Norway’s first Storting president), the city was very conservative and royalist and, as such, not the first to celebrate the 17th of May. The first time was apparently in 1826, when the Latin School students celebrated the day with a party at Nygaard with the principal’s tacit consent. But the following year, Bergen had an official celebration. The story goes that the day began with a salute—and it still does. Rockets were also sent up then as now, but back then, from Fløyen.
The procession did not take place until the evening and was probably somewhat more improvised than today, but things gradually took shape, with order in the ranks. In 1848, we hear about the procession both at 5 o’clock (in the morning!) and in the afternoon. By then, the city had also got its 17th of May party committee. This happened the year before, in 1847, when a number of people had said they were willing to contribute to the celebration of Constitution Day and were immediately given the task of raising more money, a not unfamiliar task for all May 17th committees since.
The money that collected in 1847 was used for, among other things, various folk amusements, and some of them are still in place today: racing and climbing poles. The climbing poles, which are 49 feet high, were often smeared with green soap so that it would not be too easy to get up and pick up a prize, and it was also forbidden to use climbing straps at an early stage. The race took place at Store Lungegårdsvann (few exceptions) until 1951, when the competition was moved to Vågen. There were quite a number of years at the beginning of the 20th century when racing was taken out of the program, and in our own time, there have sometimes been problems with getting both enough boats and rowing teams to complete the competition. But the May 17th Committee is doing its best to keep the traditions alive.
Rockets have been mentioned, and fireworks have been a regular feature throughout the years. Fløyen, Lungegårdsvannet, and Sverresborg have functioned as “launching ramps.” There was also mention of torchlight processions early on, without seeming to be among the most regular activities. But for a long time now, the celebration has seen a finale full of atmosphere, always concluding with fireworks.
And then there are the processions, as they are called in Bergen, except for the children’s parade, which in Bergen began as the boys’ flag parade in 1877 and still is called the flag parade to this day. It has its own history, with and without Saturday marching bands and Sunday marching bands or drumming bands at all, and eventually with a few girls and some flags instead of the pennants that were first used. They were solid red, white, and blue in the beginning, so the controversy over the first years about union flags or purely Norwegian flags could be avoided.
Before 1877, there was usually only one procession on May 17: the main procession, which in its time had both a longer and different route than today, from Skansen via Klosteret to Engen. For many years, the flag parade followed along with the main procession, but in 1914, it got its own route. As for the morning procession, there was an early morning walk through Bergen in 1848, but it did not become a regular event. It is hard to say when the morning procession actually began, but in 1892, a new event was introduced in the program (there have been printed May 17 programs in Bergen from 1877 on): the Bergen Brigades Musikkorps set out at 8 a.m. from Nygårdsparken to Vetrlidsallmenningen. The following year, it left at 7:15 a.m. from Skansen to Nygårdsparken, and many of the city’s citizens joined.
But only in the program for 1911 was the term “Morning Procession” used. Many visitors and immigrants think the main procession is too carnival-like, but this “carnival” also has its traditions. History tells us that the starting point was with chair John Lund and his party committee. People were to be reminded of the great events and proud names in Norway’s history, thus the foundation was laid for various processions and events.
But if Bergen got its first May 17th committee in 1847, it doesn’t mean that there have been committees continuously since then. Sometimes, things were driven by private initiatives. Then in 1859, Bergen got a driving party committee chair, namely the famous author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who was then theater director in Bergen. (Here he also wrote the first draft of “Ja, vi elsker”—important to remember.) Bjørnson put his twist on things and made a powerful debut as a May 17th speaker, but then he went back to the capital. And so it went with the organized celebration until the Archbishop of Sweden and the politician John Lund was elected chair of a newly formed May 17 committee in 1876. And it was Lund who headed up things—with the exception of a few years in the Storting—until his death in 1913. He is the one who is said to have opened every 17th of May with the greeting “Again the day is ’round”—and his greeting has been maintained by the May 17th committees since.
All photos courtesy of 17. mai i Bergen
Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall
Also see: Celebrating the big day the Bergen way! in the May 6 issue of The Norwegian American.
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.