For a secular country, Norway observes many religious holidays (and by “observe”, I mean get days off work). Spring is full of holidays – religious and otherwise, including 1 May (international labour day), Ascension Day and Whit Monday. But the most important of all is 17 May.
Bigger than Christmas, New Year and your birthday, it’s Syttende mai – Constitution day. Everyone dresses up – most wear a bunad (national costume), and there are parades through every city, town and tiny outpost. Nothing military about the parades; Syttende mai is for children. School by school, children march, sing, wave flags and shout hip hip hooray!
Anywhere two or more Norwegians are gathered, Syttende mai is celebrated: In London and Dubai, in Australia and New Zealand, from Vancouver to Montreal, in several US cities, including New York, Washington DC, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, San Diego and in Texas, Louisiana, Alaska and of course in Minnesota. Many foreign cities have had elaborate celebrations since the 1800s.
Neither rain, snow nor freezing hail storms can stop the Syttende mai celebrations. Up here, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothes. On Syttende mai, no one is deterred; everyone is out.
The Oslo parade makes a short stop at the Royal Palace, where King Harald, Queen Sonja and their children stand on the balcony for hours, waving and smiling to everyone. Lively, yet peaceful; not a weapon in sight.
17 May and the russ
Livelier still are the russ – the high school graduates. They wear red overalls and red hats with tassels, whistles and wooden whips, and hand out their mock (naughty) business cards.
The overalls have likely been worn for 2 – 3 weeks and not been washed (if you’re caught washing your overalls, you have to cut off a trouser leg). Also, chances are the russ are pretty drunk – from beer and lack of sleep. The period between 1 May – 17 May is called the russetid. For most, it’s one long period of debauchery; a continuous party with sex, beer and rock’n’roll.
During the russetid, you collect souvenirs – “knots” in the tassel of your hat – according to mad little challenges you undertake. The traditional ones, first introduced in the 1940s, were relatively innocent. For each night spent awake, you got to tie a knot in your tassel. A reprimand by a police officer gave you the right to tie a match in your tassel and if you kissed the police officer, you earned a seigmann (man-shaped, sugar-coated jelly sweet). Drinking 24 bottles of beer in 24 hours gave you a bottle cap. All sweet and innocent like.
Over time, the challenges have become ever more creative, irreverent and controversial. If you’re the sober type, you can earn:
- a button – for participating in the annual russ humanitarian activities
- a lollipop – for handing out your cards to children in hospitals (kids love collecting these cards)
- a piece of bread – for wearing bread as shoes for an entire day
For the rest, well, I’ll keep it relatively civilised, but if you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading here. If not, well, here are a few of the 100 official knots for Oslo’s russ in 2011:
You’ve earned the right to wear in your tassel:
- a ruler – for spending an entire class period underneath your desk
- a Monopoly note – for pole dancing on a bus, tram or metro for at least 5 minutes
- a chapstick – for making out with at least 10 people AND get their autograph and phone number
- a pine cone – for having sex with a fellow russ outdoors
- a wine cork – for drinking a bottle of wine in 40 minutes
- a small flower – for teaching sex education to freshies (10th graders), physically demonstrating the motions
- a pornographic picture – for answering every question from the teacher by reading from a porn mag
- a g-string – for running through the teacher’s lounge in your undies
- a plastic spoon – for sneaking into the bedroom of a friend’s mum or dad, get into their bed, wake them up and say thanks for last night
Yeah. It only gets worse, so I think I’ll stop here, folks.
This is an excerpt – updated – of this article on Boots’n’All.
This sounds like a blast. Wish I could be there ! Great photos, too.
Wow – naughty indeed. Sounds like a good time – wonder what the origin of the knots is (as in who made them up)! Never heard of this before!
Andrea – this has been going on since the 1940s at least. I think it’s a type of ritual for passing into adulthood; all about breaking rules and norms. Only the nature of the knot challenges change over time. 30 years ago, running naked through school or town would have been very provocative. Today, much less so.
Sounds like a big party! I’ll have to time my first visit around May 17th!
I love hearing about various holidays from other countries. This sounds like a lot fun.
Is that a condom in her hair???
I love being in Norway on 17 May. Our national day celebrations in Denmark is nothing like that. We’re so jealous and so are the Swedes.
@Christian – Haha, yes it is.
I know – you guys are so jealous. Will you be here tomorrow?
Sign me up! This looks like a great time. Nice work on the write up.
Hurra for 17. mai!!!!!! Hurra, hurra, hurra!
@Petter: Normally, I only allow comments in English here, but I’ll make an exception this time 🙂
Can’t believe I never heard about this. Norway next year then…
Congratulations ( – though I miss some Bunad photos;)
This is so weird. If I visit Norway, this is when I want to go.
I love holidays where everyone dresses up!
How fun….I’d never heard of this holiday…..I don’t that I’d have many things in my tassel though…..
Wow, sounds like a great celebration! I love all of the tradition behind it!
When I first started reading, I was excited about this! Great to see Norwegians celebrate their holiday! As I got to the end, I realized that beyond the parade and pageantry, it goes downhill rather quickly! Personally speaking, I think it is sad that high school kids resort to this type of behavior and that it is widely encouraged.
@Jeremy – Yes, I see how their behaviour can seem a bit outrageous. It’s really just kids being rebellious and having some fun for a few weeks, though.
This sounds like one crazy celebration! Puts our 4th of July celebrations to shame 🙂 I’ve never worn bread for shoes but that one I would do!
@Debbie – 🙂
Ha, this sounds like one of the most entertaining holidays ever! Why don’t we do this in the U.S.?!? 😛
I just happened to be in the Norwegian Pavilion today at Epcot and there was a big party and I didn’t know why. Thanks for sharing.
And all of a sudden, Norway has changed in my mind from lush greenery, lakes and mountains, to crazy party country. Loved this post. I’m not sure how many knots I would have achieved if I was taking part in russetid – I don’t think I even want to think about it. 🙂
I was wondering why so many people where wearing those overalls when my family and I were in Oslo last weekend. Now I know. Hip-hip hooray!!
Hey! My Norwegian friend has never told me about this. Next year I am going to show up at the pub with a red hat just to see what she does.