Informant: So we celebrate the 17th of May because that was when Norway became independent from Denmark. Um… Most people wear the national costume that day, which is handmade, and it’s called a bunad. A lot of families, the moms make the national costume for the children and for themselves.

Interviewer: So what does a typical Syttende Mai day or celebration look like?

Informant: Um, it’s usually a lot of parades. There’s school parades. Almost every single school that’s sort of outside of town will have their own parade where the kids march around their little neighborhood. But if you live close to the city all the schools participate in the city parade… Which means that every school will have their own… Little banner and they will march together and it will be various bands playing throughout the day… And it usually starts in the morning… So everyone gathers in town for that… And then another thing is, there is like a breakfast that people have, like “Independence Breakfast,” which a lot of friends will do and family will do in groups… And then the breakfast itself is very traditional and typical. It’s buffet style. The food itself, it’s a typical Scandinavian breakfast with bread and jelly and røkt laks, which is smoked salmon… So then your closest friends come over and we eat and then walk into town together afterwards and everyone has flags that we fly. And we watch the parade… Yeah, and you know… So then you meet all your friends and your relatives in town after the parade and people hang out and celebrate together… And usually most people have lunch in town where they will just get coffee and cakes… And then there’s another parade later that afternoon, usually around 2 or 3 p.m., where all the organizations, like athletes’ and scouts’ organizations, do a parade. And that one’s fun because it’s more entertaining, because if like the gymnasts are walking, they will stop at certain places and then they will do a little performance… There’s also a separate parade… Kind of in between the two that I mentioned, that is for all the graduated students in town, and that one usually takes place around 12 p.m. and they have buses and cars in the parade.

Interviewer: And what do people do at night? Or in the evenings?

Informant: I think usually that evening, I think most families are just with their families and at like… Mellow gatherings with friends… But the night before is a big party night. The 16th of May is a party night where all the young people go out and party.


Informant: So we used to host the breakfasts, you know… We would invite some of our friends and family to our house early in the morning before the parade started… So they would come to our house and we would then walk into town and watch the parade, and we would meet any family or friends that we haven’t seen yet… And you and your cousins would be in the school parades and then the activities parades, and the activities one is the most fun because there’s a lot of, like, energy and things to watch, you know? And then the schools will normally do things too. So parents will go with their kids to their school after the parade. So we would go with you to that. 

Interviewer: What happens at the schools?

Informant: It’s a lot of games. So you’ll have like… Balls that you throw against these bucket things… Like it’s very much homemade. All of these games are made by the parents… So you like try to knock the buckets down by throwing the ball, and you do the potato bag races, you know. Or running around with the egg on the spoon. Oh and then actually there’s usually a carnival in town. At least in my town there was, you know? Like with all the little merry go rounds and rides.


Syttende Mai involves a lot of visual displays of nationalism. From wearing the traditional costume (the bunad) to waving flags to marching in parades, participants are openly displaying and expressing their Norwegian identity.

The activities of Syttende Mai also suggest that Norway has a family-oriented social culture. Parents contribute plenty of time to their children, whether watching them in parades, or setting up and then participating in the games at the schools. The buffet-style breakfast is quite communal, as it entails everyone coming together to serve themselves from the same mass plates at the same table. Having coffee and cakes in town after the parades is a time to sit and talk; cafés are very social settings, meant for conversation as everyone sits at a coffee table with only each other and their food and drinks, no distraction (unlike a sports bar, for example). Even the national costumes have a familial element, as they are often made by a mother for herself, her husband and their children. There is quite a bit of time spent with close friends too, and one might suggest that such friends may be considered extensions of family. Despite being about Norway’s independence, the activities that make up this holiday suggest that Syttende Mai is a celebration of togetherness, especially as it pertains to family.


To Read More About Syttende Mai:
“Norway Constitution Day (Syttende Mai).” Cultural Studies: Holidays Around the World, 2018.