Hurray for Syttende Mai

Syttende Mai, or Norway’s National Day, is a day to celebrate freedom and every year Norwegians make sure it’s the most splendid of parties.


After hundreds of years of being ruled either by Denmark or by Sweden, May 17 is the date in 1814 when Norway gained its own constitution. It is also just a few days after Norway was liberated from Nazi occupation in 1945, so it’s unsurprising that the country is still marking with gratitude their freedom from foreign rule. May 17 is a day for fun, family and good food.

Syttende Mai comes with its own (semi) strict dress code: Families dress in their bunads, traditional embroidered wool costumes that differ from region to region, and which are carefully handed down the generations. In spite of the costume, however, it’s not a stiff or formal day in any respect. The goal is to celebrate all that is good about Norwegian culture, and this generally begins with frokost, an indulgent breakfast of salmon, eggs, strawberries in champagne, and bløtkake, a creamy layered cake topped with berries.

Then everyone takes to the streets. Children are allowed as much ice cream as they want on Norway’s national day, and can eat pølse, Norwegian hot dogs, to their hearts’ content. There are epic cakes like the kransekake, a tiered almond angel cake that’s hard on the outside and soft in the middle, champagne toasts, street parties, and lots of games.

Though there’s lots of flag-waving, there are no military marches or flypasts. Instead there are peaceful children’s parades, and the marching bands are from local schools which play songs like Norge i rødt, hvitt og blått (Norway is red white and blue) and Kom mai du skjønne milde (Come May, beautiful, mild), as well as the national anthem, Ja, vi elsker dette landet.

As you might expect the parades in Oslo are the largest with around 100,000 people taking part, meandering through the streets past war memorials, and the royal palace, as well as popping in to residential homes so that the country’s senior citizens don’t miss out on the joy.

Perhaps the only people who can get away with looking a little rough around the edges, are the country’s school leavers. For the three weeks running up to Syttende Mai, they warm up the party as part of russ, a period of officially endorsed wildness before their final exams. Travelling round in buses to festivals, playing tricks, and taking on odd and extreme challenges to collect knots in their hats, the boiler-suited teens end their festivities with a parade of their own called the russetoget, a contrast to the cuteness and sweet singing of their younger siblings.

While there’s no russ in London to warm up the proceedings there’ll still be lots of freedom partying Norwegian style happening for Syttende Mai in Southwark Park. True to tradition there’ll be children’s parades, flags, bunads, and singing of all the songs, as well as performances by Norwegian bands like Casa Murilo, Solberg, and The High Note, and of course lots of pølse, waffles, champagne, and with a nod to their British hosts, fish and chips – made from Norwegian Cod, of course.