Norway's "Syttende Mai"

Syttende Mai, special day for Norwegian-Americans

By Sam Johnson

     Throughout this week in North Dakota, Minnesota and across this great land of ours where Americans of Norwegian heritage live together and fraternize, lefse, rosettes, krumkake, blotkake, rommegrot, fattigmand, kranse kake, and other Norwegian goodies will be consumed with great relish and much celebration.
     The occasion is a special one for Norwegians and Americans of Norwegian descent, for Wednesday is "Syttende Mai" (17th of May).
     Though the observance of "Syttende Mai" is frequently compared to our "Fourth of July" as a celebration of independence, it actually commemorates the anniversary date of Norway's Constitution, which was adopted on May 17th in 1814.
     Having been a Danish possession for four centuries, Norway was handed over to Sweden following a military defeat of the Danes by Sweden in 1813.
     The Norwegians strenuously objected to the arrangement in which they had no voice, and on April 10, 1814 they elected by popular vote a National Assembly of 112 officials, merchants, and farmers to meet at Eidsvold, Norway outside Christiania (now Oslo) to draft a constitution inspired by the American Declaration of Independence and the French Constitution.

17th May Resources

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     As one representative described the assembly:
    "Here was to be seen a selection of men from all parts of the realm, of all ranks and dialects, men from court circles as well as landowners, who came together in no set order for the sacred purpose of laying the foundations for the rebirth of the nation."
     Six weeks later on May 17th, the National Assembly completed its work on the Norwegian Constitution, and on the same day closed its proceedings by electing Prince Christian Frederik as King of Norway and declaring Norway a "free, independent kingdom, united with Sweden."
     Sweden's King, Karl Johan, accepted the Norwegian Constitution of May 17, 1814 as the basis for a political marriage of convenience with Norway. He had several reasons for doing this.
     One of these reasons was that he hoped the new union might be strong enough to play a role in French politics because Napoleon Bonaparte had abdicated the throne just a month earlier on April 18.
     Another reason was that he dreaded the prospect of a winter war with Norway, which seemed imminent should he not recognize their document.
     Therefore, he accepted the Norwegian Constitution as an appeasing gesture, though he clearly intended to take back many concessions after he was crowned monarch of the dual kingdom in 1818.
     In fact, King Karl Johan deliberately began trying to restrict the constitutional powers of the Storting (Norwegian parliament), and went so far as to extend his royal prerogatives in an attempt to bind Norway closer to Sweden.

      However, the Storting defended what had been won in 1814, and well into the 1820's, the common rallying cry "Guard the Constitution" was heard at national day processions.
     At best, Karl Johan was able to maintain a constitutional monarchy.
     By 1830, Karl Johan gave up the idea of revising the Norwegian Constitution, as did his successors, and "Syttende Mai" celebrations became genuine festivities that included a solemn procession of elders as well as a joyous children's parade signifying hope for the future -- a tradition that continues to be a special part of "Syttende Mai" celebrations in Norway today.    
     In fact, one of the striking things about the Norwegian national day of celebration, is the absence of military demonstrations.
     Instead, "Syttende Mai" is marked by children's parades in each community, and features a grand children's parade in Oslo where over 100 schools and 100,000 people take part.
     Dressed in their national costumes (bunads), young people wave flags, sing songs, and march along with school bands, down Karl Johan's Gata (the main street in Oslo) past the Royal Palace where the Royal Family greets and waves to the youngsters. The event is now broadcast on national TV for the entire nation to enjoy.
     Although Norway's union with Sweden continued for nearly another century, the Norwegian people kept up the pressure for separation and true independence.
     Finally, in 1905 with the support of virtually the entire Norwegian populace, the Storting officially dissolved Norway's union with Sweden, and Sweden was forced to recognize Norway's complete independence.
     To this day, the exuberance of "Syttende Mai" celebrations are evident not only in Norway, but also in Canada, and the United States where more than 4.5 million Americans trace their ancestry to Norway.
     Americans of Norwegian heritage mark this special day in much they same way as they do in Norway -- with music, flag waving, lots of good foods and treats, and singing the national anthem "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" (Yes, We Love This Land) with lyrics by Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson :

            "Yes, we love this country,
            as it rises forth,
            rugged, weathered, above the sea,
            with thousands of homes and families.
            Love, love it and think
            of our fathers and mothers
            and the saga nights that sends
            dreams to our earth,
            and the saga nights that sends dreams to our earth."

Gratulerer med dagen!  Happy Syttende Mai! "Hipp, Hipp, Hurra!"