May 17th: A guide to how Norway normally celebrates its national day

May 17th: A guide to how Norway normally celebrates its national day
A 1993 photo of young Norwegians celebrating May 17th. Photo: Terje Bendiksby/NTB/SCANPIX
Norway marks its national day on Monday May 17th but celebrations are once again slightly muted due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Here we explain how the country usually commemorates the day it signed its constitution in 1814.
May 17th, or constitution day, commemorates the signing of Norway’s constitution in 1814 and which declared the country as independent.
For the second year running the usual celebrations are being restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic but to remind readers of how things normally work on national day, here’s a guide to how Norway usual celebrates May 17th.
Get up early
Celebrations kick off early for Norway’s national day, so forget about having a lie in on the day. Whether it’s the cannons being fired at dawn, the ‘buekorps’ (boys and girls brigades) enthusiastically banging their drums through the streets of Bergen or the children’s parades getting under way in Oslo and other towns and cities, expect an early start, and high noise levels throughout the day.

Photo: Marie Peyre

Dress appropriately
Norwegians like to dress casually at any other time, but on May 17th, they do smarten up. Many (women in particular) proudly don the local ‘bunad’, the traditional costume, of which there are over 200 different kinds in Norway. Those who don’t still dress smartly (this means a suit for men, or at the very least a jacket). Sportswear and casual clothes, so popular any other time of the year, are a no-no, and although allowances are made for foreigners, it is worth making an effort to blend in. 

Photo: Marie Peyre
Fly the flag
On 17 May Norwegians paint the town red… and white, and blue. The flag is indeed a big part of the celebrations, and your party kit is not complete without one. Thankfully cheap flags can be bought pretty much everywhere in the days before the event, from local supermarkets to discount shops and many other places, so just get one and join in. 

Photo: Marie Peyre
Brace yourself for queues
To get a drink. To get a bite to eat. To go to the loo. On public transport. On packed roads. Plan accordingly. 

Photo: Marie Peyre
Book your table well in advance
While many Norwegians will grab a ‘pølse i brød’ (hot dog) or an ice-cream while out and about on the day (it has indeed become a bit of a tradition for many), lots will also sit down for a proper lunch, and many hotels and restaurants offer special May 17th menus. If you really want to make a day of it and enjoy Norway’s Constitution Day in style, make sure to book well in advance at your chosen restaurant. Just turning up on the day is bound to bring disappointment.
Photo: Marie Peyre
Pack an umbrella
Spring can be unpredictable in Norway. You might get a glorious, sunny warm day, or it might be cold, grey and windy. Each year, speculations as to what the weather will be like on May 17th make for lively conversation topics earlier on in the month. Snow has even been known to fall on May 17th. So don’t assume anything, check the weather forecast and pack an umbrella just in case. Better be safe than sorry. 
Snap away
May 17th celebrations are really something unique, and this is a very special time to be visiting Norway. Great photo opportunities abound on the day. Make sure you bring your camera (or at least make sure your mobile is fully charged, with plenty of available storage). 

Photo: Marie Peyre
Learn to say ‘Gratulerer med dagen’
That’s how Norwegians greet each other on the day. This can be roughly translated as ‘Congratulations on this special day’. It also means ‘Happy birthday’. Which is a bit confusing for foreigners, but kind of makes sense, as this is the anniversary of Norway’s constitution, which was signed at Eidsvoll on May 17th 1814. 

The National Assembly at Eidsvoll 1814. Painted by Oscar Arnold Wergeland, 1885. The painting hangs today in Norway’s Stortinget parliament.
by Marie Peyre
This article was first published in 2017.