If you want to experience Norwegian tradition at it’s finest (or weirdest), you should visit Norway in May. The 17th of May to be exact. On this day, Norway celebrates it’s constitution day – and it’s the biggest party of the year.
Celebrating that our constitution was signed in Eidsvoll on this date in the year of 1814, May 17th is meant to be a fun celebration for everyone. It’s many Norwegian’s favorite day of the year, even beating Christmas for many of my friends. But what makes this day so special? All of our weird and wonderful Norwegian traditions:
1. Dressing Up In Our Traditional Bunads
17th of May is a day where we all dress up and really make an effort to look our best. Kids will traditionally get a new spring outfit for this celebration, and I remember looking forward to shopping with my mom for a new ’17th of May’ outfit every spring. It was such a big deal to everyone in our school. Women and girls above the age of 14 will most likely wear a traditional bunad if they’re lucky enough to own one, and so will men, although most of them wear a suit.
What is a bunad? It’s a traditional and hand crafted Norwegian garment. There are a variety of bunads out there and they all have their own special design and embroideries, depending on what region of the country they stem from. A bunad is a very special piece of clothing and it usually says a lot about a person’s heritage and where your family comes from. It is worn with pride and with good reason: They are crazy expensive, and some of them cost up to 50 000 NOK.
When do we wear it? Many young women will get a bunad for their confirmation at age 14 and will use it for the first time during that occasion. It is pretty common among Norwegians to get a confirmation in a church even if you don’t consider yourself “that religious”, and it’s considered a cultural experience rather than a religious one for many young adults. After you get a bunad you use it whenever you attend a baptism or confirmation, for May 17th, and some people wear it whenever they attend a wedding. It’s such a beautiful garment – but it’s also super hot to wear on those warm summer days, yiiikes.
My Bunad: I inherited my bunad from my grandmother for my confirmation. She got hers for her confirmation in the 1950’s and then passed it on to me for my confirmation in 2005, so it really means the world to me. Mine is a blue Hamarøybunad, which means it’s from the municipality Hamarøy in northern Norway. My sister’s bunad is a green Nordlandsbunad, from the county of Nordland in northern Norway.
2. Champagne For Breakfast
Although us original vikings are known for rarely turning down a drink, 17th of May is the only day a year it’s truly socially acceptable to drink alcohol at 8 AM. On this glorious day we meet up with our friends, family and/or neighbors for a special breakfast, accompanied with a glass or two of Champagne. We usually set the table the day before and decorate it with napkins and other decor in red, white and blue – the colors of our flag – and enjoy a lovely meal together in the early hours. This tradition is especially vibrant in bigger cities of Norway and when you’re still a student, and luckily the Champagne levels usually decrease in the presence of children. But having a nicer breakfast with smoked salmon, scrambled eggs or even cake is a must for must Norwegian of any age on this day.
3. A Parade Filled With Singing Children.. And Our Own Flag
After a lovely breakfast it’s time to head for the children’s parade. In larger cities there is usually several small parades in association to neighborhoods and school districts where children attend with their class and school band, followed by a bigger parade in the city centre where all kinds of groups attend. In rural Norway it is usually enough with one parade: Sometimes lead by a band, other times lead by a pick-up truck with a huge speaker playing traditional band music (true story). What all parades have in common however, is that they are filled with children and adults, waving the Norwegian flag while singing and screaming “hipp hipp hurra” (“hooray”) at the top of their lungs.
There are so many flags. I mean, I have friends who often comment on Americans’ patriotism and I’m over here like… dude. I’ve celebrated 4th of July twice in the US and it’s nothing compared to our flag fest on steroids in May. I get how it might look – like we’re praising ourselves and everything. But it’s not about that, it’s all about enjoying ourselves and having the best possible day with our family and friends, all while celebrating our constitution. And everyone is welcome.
4. Eating As Many Hot Dogs & Ice Cream You Possibly Can
Once the parade is over, people usually gather somewhere to eat and be together. In cities, the restaurants will be super busy and chaotic because everyone wants to eat out. In the more rural places people will usually get together at a school and sell a huuuuge amount of cake, hot dogs and ice cream to hungry children and adults. May 17th is the one day a year any children are allowed to eat as many hot dogs and as much ice cream they possibly want! Later on, speeches will be held, the national anthem will be sung, and the children will play games outside and ‘compete’ for prizes (everyone who attends will get a prize, no worries).
5. Playing Weird Games Outside
Another fun tradition of May 17th is playing weird games outside. My two favorites as a child were the potato sack race and the spoon race, with either a potato or an egg. We would always compete like our lives depended on it and I suppose it was extra fun competing in nice clothes? Although technically for children, this tradition can be obtained far into adulthood as well. I am, of course, talking of experience here. Just trust me: You haven’t really done the limbo until you’ve done it in a tight bunad.