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Constitution day 17th May

It must be in utter perplexity that visitors run into the hordes of mixed Norwegians and locals parading up Bridge Street and Albert Street on the 17th of May, some of whom are wearing embroidered “peasant” costumes looking like they have been time-warped here from the 19th Century, and all waving little paper Norwegian flags. Why do we celebrate the 17th of May, really? Well, it’s “Norway Day” as some people say here. But I’m going to tell you some of the lesser known and more amusing facts about the day.

The point of it all is to celebrate Norway getting its own constitution. Therefore, the day is officially called Constitution Day. However, in Norway it is simply known as the 17th of May, pronounced seventeenthofmay all in one word, so that the younger children actually have no idea that the event takes place on the seventeenth day of the month of May – it’s all a name to them, like Christmas Day. But this is when the constitution was signed, in 1814, marking what national romantics call the end of the “400-year-long night” when Norway was under Danish rule. This rule must have been just as oppressive as the Scottish rule over Orkney! But here was freedom at last, and the new constitution was duly signed by the first parliament gathered at Eidsvoll (near Oslo), and Christian Fredrik was chosen to be King of Norway.

All was joy and happiness until the 10th of October the same year. On that day, Christian Fredrik had to give up the throne to the Swedish King Carl the 13th. Yes, freedom lasted just five months. But in the new union with Sweden, at least, Norway got to keep its new constitution and its parliament – it was just a union of crowns. The union with Sweden lasted until 1905.

In the 1820s, the King of Sweden wished to strengthen his power over Norway, and people started celebrating the 17th of May partly as a protest against him. The angrier the king got, the more people supported the celebrations. In 1826, the newspaper Adresseavisen was sued for advertising a public celebration of Constitution Day. In 1828, all was headed for a confrontation when the government officially went out and prohibited any celebration of the day. But what they hadn’t bargained for, was that a brand new steamer by the name of The Constitution came to Oslo harbour just on the 17th of May that year, crowds turned up to greet it, and the whole thing spontaneously turned into a street party. Police tried to disperse the crowds, but to no avail. The Swedish king despaired, viewing the affair as an anti-Swedish demonstration. Police fought against the crowd, and the event later became known as the battle of the marketplace. From 1836 on, the Swedish king gave up his protests, and since then the 17th of May has been officially celebrated every year.

Present at the battle of the marketplace was Henrik Wergeland, who later became a famous poet and orator. He always claimed his student uniform was ruined in the battle, and went on to write many public speeches and poems about the 17th of May, becoming one of the pioneers who developed the form of the celebrations into what it is today. Another was Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who wrote the words for the Norwegian national anthem. He was the one who decided that a children’s parade would be a good way to celebrate. The first children’s parade in Oslo in 1870 consisted of 1800 schoolchildren – boys only! Only nineteen years later were the girls allowed to join in.

The celebrations grew and the idea about a parade for schoolchildren gradually spread all over the country, and today this is the main event on the day.

If you were in Norway on the 17th, and you were in a fairly urban place, you would be woken by the sound of drums and brass band music early in the morning – about 7 am. The distant drums, moving nearer, gets your heartbeat up and the excitement starts spreading in your body – especially if you are a child. If your parents are good, they will have prepared something extra nice for breakfast. Hot rolls, perhaps. Best enjoyed in your underwear, because the national costumes are ridiculously expensive and complicated to clean. And, of course, complicated to get on as well. Help from mum is needed to get the embroidered waistcoat and shawl straight, and the silver brooches with all those little dingly-dangly things in the right places. And your hair braided with red, white and blue ribbons in it. All this before lining up at your local school for 8.30. March off from there, school band in the lead, to join all the other schools in town at a central line-up place.

Now, this is when the excruciating waiting starts. If you are in a city, it might take one or two hours to send all the schools and marching bands off, one after the next, merged into a giant parade which takes an equally long time to file fast the crowds of proud family members lining the streets. (Don’t even think about driving a car that day!) They all march (no, wait, walk – run – skip – meander) a long route around town, which in Oslo includes going past the Royal Palace, where the dignified Royal Family stands on the balcony and does their special royal wave.

When the parade is over, your task is to find your mum and dad and start negotiating about ice-cream, hot-dogs and a helium balloon. Wise parents give their child a budget. A twenty-pound note, perhaps. Unwise parents will have to make up their minds there and then about the never-ending stream of requests, and this is no cheap affair. A helium balloon, for instance, cost between £8 and £10 in 2006, and I dare not think of what the price will be this year! Multiply this with the number of kids you’ve got. (Luckily I will be in Kirkwall, which is much more budget-friendly).

Next stop: Fun and games at your local school. These are old classics, such as raffles, throw a ring and try to hit a bottle neck, egg-and-spoon race, and so on. Never too old for that. And after that, there is the adults’ parade of clubs and societies, where you have a chance to do the whole two-hour wait and long parade around town again, but by this time your good shoes have given you blisters and you are dressed in a silly costume belonging to your amateur dramatic society instead of your meticulously donned national costume (I have been variously a clown, a monkey and even a tree). After this, you are seriously ready for a nice sit-down meal with your family.

Unless you are a secondary school graduate. In which case the 17th of May is just the finale of ten days of extreme partying. The graduates, known as “russ”, dress up in mock academic hats and red or blue boiler-suits, in which you can party all day and night without ruining your clothes, so quite handy in that respect. There they are, making an unsurpassed amount of noise, and barely able to drag themselves to school each day. After this party-athon they have their exam period. Why couldn’t they have done their partying after their exams? Because sometime in the Old Days, school used to finish in May. And tradition can’t be shifted.

After a long day of parades, remembering late family members and war veterans, speeches, ice-cream, games, food, fun and family time, the most energetic among us might choose to finish off the day by going to a dance. For me, the Orkney Norway Friendship Association 17th May dance is actually the best fun 17th May celebration there is. Better, in fact, than its Norwegian equivalent. Actually, 17th May in Kirkwall is more fun, less stress, and not so painful for my mummy-wallet, so a better day altogether. And when you go to bed in the evening, it’s good to know that you have a whole year to nurse your blisters.


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