17 May 2011

Syttende mai - Norway's Constitution Day

Hipp hurra for Norge! Today is syttende mai, Norway's independence day. On the 17th May 1814 Norway's constitution was signed, ostensibly marking the country's birth as an independent nation (it actually wasn't until 1905 that Norway became completely free of Swedish rule). To this day Norway lays claim to the world's second oldest constitution in continual force, and every year the 17th May is proudly celebrated across the country.

Syttende mai is typically characterised by huge colourful street parades of marching school bands and lots and lots of flag waving. As a Brit, I've sadly become wary of mass bouts of flag waving, as all too often in UK the Union Flag and flag of St. George get hijacked by right wing football hooligan types. Fortunately, flag waving in Norway carries none of that unpleasant jingoism, and on the 17th May the joy and pride of Norway's relatively new found independence seems very palpable. A common greeting heard on the streets is "gratulerer med dagen", or "happy birthday."

Oslo is obviously home to the largest parades, and every year over a hundred schools walk down the capital's famous Karl Johans Gate and past the royal palace, where the royal family wave to the crowds from the balcony. This year though, I spent syttende mai in Lillehammer, where Mrs. Nibbler's family come from. Although more subdued than Oslo, the parades were just as joyous, and as always the focus is on making it a fun day out for the kids.
Kids in Russ outfits
There's also a separate parade called 'russetoget,' which is made up of graduating high school kids called 'russ'. These guys and girls all dress up in different coloured boiler suits and generally spend the three weeks leading up to syttende mai having the mother of all parties. They drink like fish, shag like rabbits, and drive around in customised busses kitted out with sound systems that would make AC/DC proud. It's enough to make anyone wish they were 19 again.
Syttende mai is also one of the many times a Norwegian has cause to wear their national costume, or bunad. These are thick woollen outfits that vary in style according to which region of the country you are from. Some range from very plain, almost austere outfits, to ones with beautiful colours and elaborate embroidery. They're quite a sight to behold. But such elegance comes at a price; a full bunad with all the trimmings such as buttons, belts, brooches, and shoes can easily set you back well over $10,000. The good news is that they last for decades and are often passed down through the generations. The eldest Nibbler girl (now 4 years old) proudly wears her grandma's bunad from 1945, and my sister-in-law inherited a beautifully designed bunad from the Telemark region that dates back to the 1930s.

Syttende mai doesn't really have many food traditions associated with it. but usually unholy amounts of ice cream are consumed, along with the ubiquitous (and frankly vile) 'pølser', or hot dogs. It is also common to have brunch together with family or friends, where smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and maybe a drop or two of champagne would be served. Another common food eaten on this day is 'kransekake' - a tiered cake made from almonds, egg whites and sugar. The trick is make it so that it is hard on the outside yet still soft and chewy in the middle. It is delicious.

This year the Nibbler family went for lunch at the opulent Lillehammer Hotel, a 100 year old hotel located near the site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. As is typical, the hotel had a laid out a buffet lunch, and although I normally run a mile from this sort of thing, it was actually really rather excellent.
Dining room at the Lillehammer Hotel

The 'koldtbord'
Plate upon plate of delicious dishes such as reindeer, lamb chops, roast chicken and more were laid out. There was also a traditional 'koldtbord' of cold dishes like smoked salmon, spekeskinke (cured ham), king crab legs, and Norwegian prawns.

Of course, it wouldn't be the 17th May without lots of cakes and kransekake, and the Lillehammer Hotel provided an impressive spread.

We left happy with bellies bursting vowing to come back next year. Gratulerer med dagen, Norge!


  1. This looks such a fun day. I can see why the Norwegians love their Norway day - I would too if it meant eating all that cake ;o) Thanks for allowing me to be a part of this NN ;o)

  2. As a friend of mine once said -- and with which I concur -- Syttende Mai in Oslo is better than April in Paris.