How to celebrate May 17th, Norway's National Day

The Local Denmark
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How to celebrate May 17th, Norway's National Day
Flags, flags and more flags. Photo: : Jon Olav Nesvold / NTB scanpix

For many Norwegians, May 17th is even bigger than Christmas. Here are eight tips for getting the most out of the nation's most important celebration.


Norwegians are the only people in Scandinavia who really go in for national pageantry, and May 17th is the day they pull out all the stops. "Syttende mai" as it's known in the local vernacular is far and away the biggest street party Norway has all year, easily eclipsing New Year's Eve. 
Girls and women come out looking like Heidi in their colourful dirndl dresses, while the men and boys look like Georgian gentlemen in frock coats, top hats and 17th century shoes. Often, Norwegians will also sport the tartan pattern traditional to their home province. 
Some of the costumes cost a ridiculous amount of money (more on that below), so all this dressing up is something the country takes very seriously indeed. Children's parades make their way through every town and city, to the proud cheers of parents, before everyone sidles off for an afternoon's festive drinking. 
It's all rather spectacular, but as a foreigner you may feel more than a little excluded by this manic focus on Norwegian-ness, and it's easy to suspect that recent immigrants to the country are only grudgingly invited to the party.  
That's why The Local has put together an expat survival guide for Norway's most important day of the year. 
1. Dress like a local

Photo: Sigmund/Flickr

This is easier said than done, seeing as the full "Bunad" traditional costume can set you back 70,000 kroner ($12,000), and dirndl dresses don't come cheap either. But if you're of African heritage and you come out on the streets dressed like Heidi, Norwegians will love you for it. It'll sooth their underlying worries that all this nationalism might, just possibly, be a tad exclusionary. If your funds don't stretch that far, wear a suit and carry a Norwegian flag.

2. Get a flag

Photo: AnneCN/Flickr

The nation will essentially be a sea of waving flags on Tuesday, with flags in nearly every Norwegian's hand and hanging from every building. The best and most obvious way to join in is to get yourself some flags and start waving 'em. If you want to display that you're part of the national spirit while still maintaining your own identity, why not bring your own flag along as well? 
3. Learn the lingo and march along


Photo: Jumborois/Flickr 

The day starts at 7am when orchestras and marching bands wake you up by playing traditional songs. But it won't stop there: the parades continue all day long and everyone will follow them everywhere with their waving flags and cheering. 

If you're uncertain on how to respond to all of the enthusiasm, just smile along, wave your flag and tell everyone you see “Gratulerer med dagen!”, which literally means "Congratulations of the day". Repeat that and the occasional "Hipp, Hipp, Hurra!" and you can't go wrong.

4. Eat and drink like a Norwegian

Alexandra Leisse/Flickr
Photo: Alexandra Leisse/Flickr

May 17th is essentially “eat whatever you want” day. So ice cream, waffles, cakes, hot dogs and other fast foods are available and are on the menu all day. Hey, who wants to count calories during the nation's biggest celebration? 
On this day there will also be a lot of drinking, but no shops will sell you any alcohol, because May 17th counts as a Sunday in Norway, and that means Vinmonopolet, the state alcohol monopoly will shut its doors on the day. So if you want to be roaming the streets swigging from a champagne bottle on Tuesday afternoon, a bit of pre-planning is required.

5. Learn the national anthem

Photo: Sons of Norway

You only really need the first couple of verses, but learning "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" is essential to a glitch-free 17 May.

For the Brits out there, the Kongesangen, or 'King's Song", which you'll also hear, has the same tune as God Save the Queen.

6. Book your children into a children's parade.

Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix
Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix

Ok, it's probably a bit late for this (sorry!), but Norwegians love the odd non-ethnic Norwegian kid in the children's parades that mark May 17th. If your child is marching, you'll have something you genuinely want to cheer, even if all the Norwegian national pride is a bit much. Plus, if you plan to stay in Norway, there's no better way of starting your child on the path to an ersatz Norwegian identity.

7. Escape the whole thing by leaving Norway

Photo: Norwegian
Photo: Norwegian

With almost no Norwegians travelling, 17 May can mean rock-bottom prices on low cost airlines. You'll probably find the flight full of Somali or Iraqi Norwegians taking the chance to see relatives elsewhere in Europe. If you're Swedish, getting away is near essential. "I normally 'escape' the country on 17th May," says Erika, who works for a green charity in Oslo. " Norwegians can just get too much with their lusekofta and traditional clothing and behaviour."

8. Escape the whole thing, but stay in Norway

Photo: Saipal/Flickr

May 17th will be the one day this summer when Norway's outward-bound population stays in the city. So if, like many foreigners, you find all the nationalism uncomfortable, it's a perfect opportunity to enjoy the country's beautiful nature stripped of any wandering Norwegians. Maybe go for a drive, for once unobstructed by roller skiers.

Gratulerer med dagen!



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