Saturday, May 19, 2012

Syttende Mai

Greta in her American version of a bunad,
(made by her Dutch grandmother)

Norwegians gather in Lillehammer 
for the Syttende Mai parade
Well, I very well can't let two Syttende Mai-s pass by without writing a bit about Norway's most beloved national holiday! 

The 17th of May is Norway's constitution day, but not independence day. Norway signed their constitution in 1814 when they were under the rule of Denmark, only to then find themselves transferred to Sweden when Denmark was on the losing end of the Napoleonic War. Norway finally became independent a good 91 years later in 1905.

Many have heard about Norway's "Syttende Mai" parades, and they are not exactly what I was expecting. Syttende Mai is often described as a day for the children, and the parade is not a parade for children as much as it is a parade of the children. When Americans think of parades--especially a national day parade--we think of big marching bands, floats, clowns, politicians, princesses. A Syttende Mai parade (or tog, which also means train) consists of the children in town marching down the main street behind a rather simple banner announcing their respective schools. And waving flags. LOTS of flag. Perhaps about half of the schools had a small band--every one complete with baton twirlers. One might expect a bit of school competitiveness--who's got the best banner, or who can shout the loudest, but the cheers didn't seem to get more elaborate than "Hipp-hipp-hurray!" Seriously. 

However. . . Norwegians do not attend these parade, nor participate in these parades, dressed in their everyday jeans and handknit sweaters. Quite the contrary. They dress up in elaborate, traditional, national costumes and jewelry that cost them thousands of dollars, and are worn on Syttende Mai and perhaps Christmas and the occasional wedding. The costumes--or bunad--are regional, and one chooses a bunad based on where in Norway one's family originated. This makes for a very colorful, festive day, and the sight of hundreds or thousands of people walking around in these elaborate dresses and suits makes you feel like you were sent back 200 years. (We won't mention the fact that 200 years ago Norway was dirt poor, and it was probably very unlikely that people owned such fine clothing and jewelry!) It is really a very incredible sight, and very touching, actually, to see such a commitment to tradition and such pride in one's roots and culture. And it is not just the 50 year old women dressed in their finest. Everyone from the 4-year olds at the barnehages, to the 16 year old girls wearing their bunader for the very first time (they often are a confirmation gift), to the 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 year olds. . .  And if the men don't have a bunad, they are most likely dressed in a suit and tie. 
Erik to the far left (in the red tie) and
Greta third from the left in the barnehage tog (parade)

This year's parade started at 10:30am in the pouring rain. The rain cleared by 11am or so, soon enough for us to rid ourselves of our rain gear and display our finery (with a layer of wool underneath). We watched the main children's parade, after which Greta immediately asked: "Pappa, on the 17th of May, can we eat as much ice cream as one wants? I haven't gotten any ice cream yet!" And thus we joined in Norwegian Syttende Mai tradition #2: eat as much ice cream and hotdogs (pølse) as you want. So, there you have it: not all of their traditions are quaint. 

By 2pm, we made our way up to Maihaugen, the open-air museum, for the barnehage (preschool) parade for the 5 and under crowd. There are probably about 20+ barnehages in town, and this parade is even more amusing (or simply odd?) than the regular parade, because you just can't send several hundred 2, 3, 4 and 5 year old marching down a path by themselves, waving to their beaming parents on the side. Someone has to go with them. Someone has to accompany nearly every single one of them, because take them out of the familiar barnehage context, they now look at their best friend in this funny hat or dress and act like total strangers and don't want to be left alone. (And the teachers aren't there to organize, because they are off with their own families, with their own kids, as they should be). So, the barnehage parade is basically a parade of the barnehages, consisting of a parent holding the banner, more parents, strollers, kids and a very sparse publicum (mostly grandparents or hangers-on) to wave and toot horns from the sidelines. But, it is an event not to be missed, if you ask my child. She's been talking about it for months. 

Despite the rain and chill in the air, and the fact that I had to work at 3pm and leave the festivities early, it was a lovely day. All day long we kept running into people we knew: Erik's work colleagues, teachers, fellow language students, the man who cleans at the barnehage, women from the ski group, the guy who laid our bathroom tile, a guy from Erik's ski group, neighbors, casual acquaintances, my work colleagues, the guy from the coffee shop, fellow American ex-pats. . .  On a day that seems so foreign--both because it is not my history and not my culture, nor is it a tradition that I have lifelong memories of-- it was very lovely to feel attached to this place and to people and to be warmly greeted and "congratulated on the day!" down every street. 

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like you guys had a really lovely 17 mai, especially Greta. :-) Thank you for the nice comment you left on my blog---how great it is that we both enjoyed this holiday more than we could have expected to (considering what we've each been through this year?). For all of the s**t Norway throws our way, it sure does have a way of worming its way into our hearts, doesn't it? Thank goodness, or we'd be crazy ladies. :-)