17th May is Norway's Constitution Day. It is Norway's biggest day of national celebration, commemorating the signing of the country's first constitution in 1814 and its release from Danish rule after 400 years of subjugation.
The citizens' procession, in which only men participated, was part of the celebrations from an early stage. In 1870 the day was marked by a procession of children, on the initiative of the distinguished writer and politician, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. During WWII, the German occupiers forbade any celebration of 17th May. After the liberation in 1945, Constitution Day gained a whole new significance, one which it has held to this day.
17th May is a political and patriotic day which is marked by flags, music, national dress, parades, speeches and the laying of wreaths on monuments.
Constitution Day is above all the children's day, with the schools as natural assembly points. The flag is hoisted in the schoolyard and the children walk in the processions under the special banner of their school. Pupils who have completed their 12 years of schooling, the Russ, start their celebration on 1st May and form a colourful contribution to the 17th May processions in their red or blue outfits. They add a more light-hearted element of carnival to the procession and the adults generally turn a blind eye to their noisy and boisterous behaviour.
This is the day to wear new clothes, but the bunad, or national dress, is becoming more and more universal on 17th May. Each region of the country has its own version of the bunad with which to mark both national and local affiliation.
There are a number of food traditions linked to 17th May. Adults may start the day with various kinds of pickled herring washed down with akevitt, a strong distilled spirit. Many eat traditional dishes such as smoked salmon, sour cream porridge and cold, cured meats. Large amounts of hot dogs, mineral water and ice cream are consumed. The traditions linked to 17th May are so strong that Norwegians living abroad, as well as their descendants continue to celebrate it.