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Anyone in Oslo on May 17—Syttende mai—should be prepared for a day unlike any other you’ve ever experienced. The normally sleek and trendy Norwegians shed their casual-chic H&M-style daywear in honor of immaculate, intricate national folk dresses (the bunad) in order to overdose on booze, ice cream, and sausages in what can at its mildest be described as a rather unusual celebration.
At first glance, the Norwegians’ celebration of their national day may seem oddly nationalistic at first. The red, white, and blue colors of the Norwegian flag are everywhere, and the morning is spent watching processions of marching bands and school children parade proudly past the palace. The processions, however, are happy, relaxed, and inclusive affairs, and there’s nothing threatening about them—quite the contrary. The children walk along, chatting with their friends and waving back nonchalantly when their eager parents spot them in the crowd while others sit down on the ground with friends and a beer, the natural habitat of the russ, the red dungaree-wearing final-year school students who prepare for the day by a solid month of pre-exam boozing.
The surprisingly expressive display of national pride on May 17 likely stems from Norway’s long history of unions and occupations and its relatively recent status as a sovereign nation. The Kalmar Union between Norway, Sweden, and Denmark began back in 1387 and after Sweden seceded in 1523, Norway became the junior partner in a Danish-Norwegian union which lasted until 1814, when Denmark was made to hand over Norway to Sweden as a result of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Norwegians rebelled. They set up their own constitution at Eidsvoll on May 17, 1814 and elected their own king, marking Norway its own country for the first time in more than five hundred years. After a short war, however, Norway was taken over by the Swedes and, though they were allowed more self-government under Sweden, Norway only finally became independent in 1905.
The 19th and early 20th centuries saw a period of national romanticism looking back to greater times: the Viking era and peasant idyll. Things and traditions which were deemed uniquely Norwegian, including fairy tales, music, food, and clothing (the beginning of the bunad), were venerated in a nation-building process of identity forging. The occupation by Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1945 added further fuel to the fire. By the end of the war, May 17 (Constitution Day) celebrations had become an important step in asserting Norwegian identity. Through the past decades, the focus of the celebrations has shifted a little to also emphasize inclusiveness, and today, you’ll see Norwegians of all backgrounds participate in the events.
In Oslo, head to the Royal Palace grounds early in the morning for the best view of the children’s parade. Although it’s bound to get crowded here, you should try to get close to the palace itself, as you’ll get to see the royal family and admire their good looks (seriously) and majestic stamina, waving at thousands upon thousands of cute schoolchildren from their balcony for a good few hours. You ought to be there by about 9:45 a.m. at the latest to get a decent view—the procession starts at 10:00 a.m. from various points around the city. If you aren’t too keen on royals, you can also admire the parade from other places on the route, which are likely to be less crowded.
Once the procession ends (or, let’s face it, you’ve had enough of flag-waving for the decade), there are plenty of options on what to do next. If the weather is good—far from a given in May in Oslo, it snowed here last week—the world is your North Sea oyster. Many venues put on special events later in the day and restaurants have a field day, though they’re likely to get full, so it is definitely worth putting in a booking if you want to go to one. For a great view of the bunads and an extra opportunity to sing the delightful Norwegian national anthem, head to the traditional free outdoor concert at 3:30 p.m. by Karpedammen at Akershus festning.
It is a good idea to pack a picnic, as most of Oslo’s shops and supermarkets will be closed on the day and the ones that do stay open (Bunnpris, Joker, and kiosks) will be packed. May 17 is a day of carefree hedonism, and you can eat whatever you want, but to truly join in, an omnivorous diet of ice cream, sausages, waffles, and booze is recommended. Many (adult) Norwegians even start off the day with a champagne breakfast.
Pro tip: while it is a good idea to buy your food before the day, it is absolutely crucial to purchase alcohol in advance—the sale of alcohol in shops on May 17 (and Sundays) is not permitted, and the alcohol cut-off time in Oslo is earlier than the supermarkets close even on normal days. Supermarkets are permitted to sell light beer on weekdays, but head to the state-run Vinmonopolet shops to get your claws on everything else.
It is worth noting that this day is not a normal day for tourism in Oslo. Most shops will be closed, the public transport will be overflowing, the roads and restaurants will be packed, and many museums and galleries will close early on the day (though the ones that are open are likely to be much less busy than normal). It is a great day for the old “when in Rome” mantra: Put on your best suit or a nice dress, be sure to have some Norwegian flags, learn to do a decent imitation of the greeting “Gratulerer med dagen!“(“Congratulations with the day!”) and be prepared to awkwardly hum along to multiple renditions of “Ja, vi elsker dette landet“, the national anthem, or get tipsy enough to think that you’re nailing it.
The bunad is the traditional folk dress worn in Norway. The word dates back to that national romantic period in the 19th century, but some types of bunad go back even further. Like the Scottish kilt, each area of Norway has its own dress, recognizable by its colors, cuts, styles, hats, embroidery, and jewelry, and Norwegians have been known to rely strongly on their kinship with a granddad or grandmother from a particular region in order to acquire a certain dress.
The bunad exists for both men and women, and you’ll see plenty of both, though it is more common for women to have them. Also, truth be told, not every single Norwegian actually owns one—understandable considering the price tags of up to 30,000 NOK (£2,700/$3,500) for the garment itself without additional trimmings. If you absolutely cannot be there for May 17, despair ye not. If all else fails, you can visit the specialized shops dotted around Oslo to have a look at these beauties, and it’s also possible to admire some of these beauties (and their bunads) going to and from other special events such as weddings and confirmations.