Today is the seventeenth of May, a very big day for those of us with Norwegian ancestry. Syttende Mai, in Norwegian. May 17 is the Norwegian Constitution Day. Sometimes Norwegian Americans call it the ‘Norwegian 4th of July.’ May 17, the day Norway declared itself an independent nation, free from Danish rule.
I didn’t know much about the history of the Riksforsamlingen, the Norwegian Constitutional Assembly of 1814. I’ve been to Eidsvoll, the town where the Assembly met. When I was a kid, my Dad took our family there. A museum about politics, I remember, with all these paintings of guys in 19th century garb. Boring. It was one of those historical sites your parents drag you to when you’re a kid. (Which, later in life, you really appreciate more, and vow to drag your own kids there someday.) So this morning, I thought I should learn more about my heritage and history and did one of those Wikipedia search things, where you bounce from link to link and it just gets more and more fascinating.
Eidsvold, for example. (They changed the spelling of the place in 1905, to today’s Eidsvoll). Leading Norwegians met there in 1814, tasked with writing a constitution. And they did it in, like, a month! I know a lot about the American constitution, the ferocious debates and compromises. But the Norwegians, heck, they did theirs in, like, five weeks. Starting on April 10 (my birthday!), they finished their work by May 17. When the US constitutional convention finished, the other delegates asked Benjamin Franklin to give a final speech, in which he said, basically, ‘look, we all know what we wrote isn’t very good, but it’s the best we could do, given our differences.’ Not the Norwegians. They had done great work, and knew it. This is my favorite part of Eidsvold: when the delegates finished, they all held hands and vowed: “United and loyal until the mountains of Dovre crumble!” I love that.
Here’s the history: for 400 years, Norway was under Danish rule. Denmark, however, bet on the wrong horse in the Napoleonic wars. So when Napoleon lost, the Brits forced Denmark to sign the Treaty of Kiel. Norway was transferred from Danish to Swedish rule without Norwegians having any say over it. The Danish Prince serving as Norwegian governor was outraged, and called for Norwegian independence: thus Eidsvold.
One might expect that a declaration of independence might lead to war, and that’s exactly what happened. The Norwegian/Swedish war of 1814 was as mean as internecine wars can be. Nasty stuff. It made for a very tough couple of weeks, I’ll tell you. Yep, that’s how long it lasted: Sweden invaded Norway on July 26, 1814, and badly outnumbered Norwegian forces battled ’em to a standstill. By August 9, both sides agreed to a cease-fire, and peace negotiations began, in Moss (where my Dad was born!), and concluded by August 14.
There’s something maybe a little bit comical about a civil war/war of independence lasting two weeks. It feels a bit like a chess match, where white opens by advancing a pawn, and black goes “hmm, can’t beat that,” and offers a draw. But actually, the two sides didn’t have a lot to fight about. What made the most sense was to have two independent nations under a single king. Norway essentially had autonomy, except for foreign policy, which the Swedes ran.
It gets better. Norway had gained its independence from Denmark in the Treaty of Kiel. At the time, the governor of Norway was Prince Christian Frederick, who was also the Danish crown prince. And he became the strongest advocate for Norwegian independence! So when Norway agreed to accept a Swedish king, poor old Christian Frederick had to go back to Denmark and be Crown Prince again. And eventually, king of Denmark. Later, in 1905, when Norway decided to go completely independent, with its own king and foreign policy, they (I love this) had an election! They elected a king! The guy they elected, A Danish prince who became King Haakon VII, had impeccable credentials, from the House of Schelsvig/Holstein/Sonderberg/Glucksberg, and, as a junior Danish prince, wasn’t ever going to be king otherwise. And he turned out to be a tremendous king.
His grandson, Harald, is the current king. And I love this too, his daughter, Martha Louise, fourth in the line of succession, decided she didn’t want to be a Princess anymore. She’s wonderfully loopy; a licensed physio-therapist-turned-entertainer, into holistic medicine, plus she says she can talk to animals and angels, plus she writes children’s books, plus she does a lot of charity work for disabled children. She’s not a royal princess anymore–just got out of the family business, mostly, though she’ll occasionally agree to attend public events.
I love this stuff. There’s something irretrievably goofy about contemporary Scandinavian history. I love the fact, that possibly the most popular museum in Sweden is the Vasa museum. The Vasa was this great seventeenth century warship, symbol of Swedish military might, back in the 1620s when Sweden genuinely was a significant European power. 10 August, 1628, the Vasa, Sweden’s greatest warship, was launched amidst all sorts of pomp and ceremony. It sailed out into a major Stockholm harbor shipping lane, and sank ten minutes after being launched. Royally screwed up shipping navigation for the next two hundred years.
In WWII, Norwegians genuinely showed their mettle–the Norwegian Underground fought with great courage and determination, and by destroying a German heavy water shipment, put a real crimp in Hitler’s attempts to build an atomic bomb. Here’s a link to the trailer for a terrific Norwegian film about the Underground, Max Manus, for example. But Norway is generally a wonderfully peaceful place.
That’s nowhere clearer than on the Seventeenth of May. It’s a wonderful holiday in Norway, with lots of flags and children waving flags and flag parades. Some folks dress up in traditional garb, and that’s really lovely, all the Norwegian women in their bunads.
One of my favorite parts involve the russ parties and celebrations. Norwegian kids graduate from the equivalent of high school on or around May 17, and traditionally, they stay awake the entire night, partying. It’s called the russfeiring. They wear a hat, a ‘russ’ cap, and they get pins for their hats depending on the kinds of mischief they manage to get up to. If they can keep a teacher up all night by ringing his doorbell: that’s a pin. If they actually stay up all night, that’s a pin. You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that a lot of the russ pin awards involve drinking games. But I remember, for example, some really imaginative and pretty funny acts of semi-vandalism–comical sayings painted on town statues, that kind of thing.
And the seventeenth of May parades (including the big one down Karl Johansgate in Oslo), end with the singing of the Norwegian national anthem, ja vi elsker dette landet. The text is by the great playwright and novelist Bjornstjerne Bjornson, and it’s lovely. None of this martial American flag worshipping.
Yes, we love this, our country
as it rises forth,
rugged, weathered, above the sea,
with thousands of our homes.
Love it, love it and think
of our father and mother
and the saga night that blesses our earth with dreams. And the saga night, that blesses our earth with dreams.
It then goes on, verse after verse, heralding the Norwegian Viking past, which it reimagines as a continuous fight for freedom. It mentions the two week war fought with Sweden. And then, this stirring peroration:
Norwegian men in house and cabin,
thank your great God!
The country He wished to protect,
no matter how dark it seemed.
Our fathers fought
And our mothers wept
and God quietly granted us
Our sacred freedom.
It’s a beautifully celebratory day for a compassionate and peace-loving people. I wish I were in Norway today, in Tromso and Moss and Oslo and Porsgrunn and Lillehammer, the places I know and love. I wish I could wave my flag, and sing ja vi elsker. Meanwhile, if you know any Norwegians, give ’em a hug. This is their day.