Syttende Mai: May 17, not March 30!
I plan additional posts about Syttende Mai celebrations in Norway and American traditions surrounding this important date among Norwegian descendants in America. I’m sharing this today because the 200th anniversary is attracting even more attention than usual this year. On Sunday, March 30, a ceremony and speech about the Constitution is being held at the Seaman’s Church in San Francisco. Across this country and Norway the range of celebrations and events like these will continue throughout the spring.
To begin to understand the traditional celebrations of May 17, Syttende Mai, in Norway (and among its descendants around the world) you only need to think about the Fourth of July. In the USA that date commemorates the signing and public announcements of the Declaration of Independence. Even though Revolutionary battles, treaties, and our Constitution itself were more than a decade in the future of that 1776 event, it was the moment we adopted the identity of ourselves as an independent nation.
Norway, too, was subject to the rule of other countries and their kings for centuries prior to signing their constitution on May 17, 1814. Control of the area known as Norway alternated between Denmark and Sweden through war, naval blockades, and other military/political pressures, This was typical of medieval power struggles.
The Constitution defined Norway as an independent nation, creating legislative and judicial structures to make decisions affecting Norwegian citizens. In practice, Norway was not truly independent of the Swedish monarchs until 1905, but the significance of their national standing gave Norwegians a voice in their own destiny. The Constitution mattered then, and it still does today.
In keeping with their long history of neutrality and non-reliance on military force, the earliest celebrations were non-military in nature, which is true today. The focus is on children, expressing pride in the youth as the future of Norway, their culture, and their heritage. Celebrated with a variety of patterns in different cities and villages, Syttende Mai parades always include flags, wearing red-white-blue ribbons and bunad, sharing music, and playing games.
The original founders of the Norway Constitution met at this building, Eidsvoll, in February of 1814. It was their intent to define Norway as not only independent of foreign monarchs, but also independent of their own monarch. Governing power would reside in the hands of the people, and that sentiment persisted even during the years when they were less than “free” of foreign intervention.
One Sons of Norway Lodge newsletter, Runespeak, says this: “It (the Constitution) was created and signed by Norwegians in many areas of the country, by Norwegian citizens of various backgrounds, businesses and churches. We have a list of all 112 people who signed and what areas they had lived in.”
Those of us old enough to recall the bicentennial celebrations of our own Independence Day, back in 1976, will understand best why this year, more than ever before, Syttende Mai will be celbated throughout the year.