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What foreigners in Norway find confusing about May 17th

Frazer Norwell
Frazer Norwell - [email protected]
What foreigners in Norway find confusing about May 17th
There are several aspects about Norway's May 17th celebrations that confuse foreigners. Pictured is the Norwegian flag in the sun. Photo by Maryan Ivasyk on Unsplash

Constitution Day, or May 17th, is a fantastic occasion in Norway. Foreigners living in the country also love getting in on the celebrations – but a few things about the day can be confusing.

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Often referred to as Norway's national day, May 17th is much beloved in Norway. The parades and festivities are a must-see (and also pretty hard to miss) for anyone in Norway on the day. 

There are plenty of traditions that can seem strange from the outside looking in, including bunads, parades, singing the national anthem, and waving flags. Even after you've experienced them a few times, they can still feel puzzling. 

How to celebrate 

One aspect that can confuse foreigners, even those with a few May 17ths under the belt, is how exactly the date should be celebrated. 

While the parades are an obvious starting point, traditions can vary across families, cities and regions. 

Many will start May 17th with a combination of a typical Norwegian breakfast, with or without champagne, and then go to watch the parades. 

After that, things become more unclear. Some choose to celebrate the rest of the day with family, grilling or playing garden games. 

Others choose to party hard, whether at parties, bars, or special May 17th events. 

Meanwhile, some cities have large gatherings after the parades, torch processions, or fireworks in the evening. 

Our tip would be to choose what you like most about May 17th and go with the flow. 

Thankfully, as long as you don't do something stupid like desecrate the Norwegian flag or spend the day antagonising people, there doesn't appear to be a "right or wrong" way to celebrate the occasion. 

What to wear 

Outfit choice can be tricky on May 17th. People normally dress their best, be it in a traditional bunad, a suit, or other smart clothes. 

For foreigners, this can be tough. For starters, most probably do not feel Norwegian enough to wear a bunad but want to dress nicely for the occasion as a show of respect. 

Therefore, finding something that makes you feel comfortable, doesn't feel underdressed, and is also appropriate for whatever the weather is can be a tricky balance. 

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Some people wear folk costumes from where they are from, which for the most part goes down well as very few Norwegians hold an attitude of "this is our day and not yours".

What other people are wearing

This is perhaps more the case for newcomers to Norway, but seeing a bunad for the first time can be strange. Seeing thousands of people decked out in "national costumes" (as they are sometimes referred to) can be overwhelming. 

Given that the costumes date back centuries, seeing the old mixed with the modern can also be surreal—for example, seeing someone in a bunad whizz by on an e-scooter. 

Even as you become more accustomed to seeing national costumes and learning more about them, you could confuse yourself trying to work out the origin of the bunad given the designs, colours and embroidery unique to different regions of Norway. 

The national pride

As the day marks the signing of the Norwegian constitution, it's no surprise that its themes centre on national pride and identity and feature plenty of flag waving and singing of the national anthem. 

This can be puzzling for foreigners, as in some places, patriotism and national pride have been hijacked by populist and far-right movements and used as a tool to cause division.

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Other foreigners may also be critical of the idea of a monarchy and how heavily they feature in the day's proceedings. 

However, in Norway, no one really questions these things. This is just as well because, for the most part, May 17th demonstrates how you can celebrate a country's essence without hijacking it for the wrong reasons. 

The locals in Norway generally choose to include those who also wish to celebrate May 17th rather than exclude them. 

It's the fact that Norway is able to maintain a strong sense of national pride on May 17th while remaining inclusive that some may find confusing. 

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