How & Why Norwegians Celebrate ‘Syttende Mai’


The 17th of May, Syttende Mai, is an important day for the Norwegians. Perhaps the most important day of the year to them.

Syttende mai celebrations are so grand in Norway that it’s hard for neighboring countries, or even countries like the U.S., where plenty of Norwegians have immigrated, to miss the importance of this date, and the celebrations that follow.

As it happens, Sweden’s most famous zoo, Skansen, also has a ‘syttende mai’-celebration in honor of the independence of our fellow Scandinavians.

How is it celebrated?

The day usually starts out with a feast for breakfast. Norwegians will typically get together with neighbors, family, and friends and indulge in some standard Norwegian cuisine; bread, eggs, smoked salmon, meat, pinnekjøtt, and lefse. You’ll probably also see the typical barbeque items such as burgers or hot dogs served during the celebrations.

One of the most important events during May 17 is the traditional ‘syttende mai’-parade. Every year, thousands of children march through the cities and towns of Norway. The largest parade takes place in Oslo and attracts tens of thousands of people every year. As the children pass by The Royal Palace, the royal family awaits them on the balcony, waving at them as they walk by.

The traditional folk dress of Norway, Bunad, comes in different variations, depending on where in Norway you’re from. Picture borrowed from:

Why do Norwegians celebrate ‘syttende mai’?

On May 17, 1814, King Kristian VIII would sign the Norwegian Constitution, ultimately leading to their independence from Sweden.

Till then, Norway had been a part of the Kingdom of Sweden, which was considered a superpower throughout the 1300s all the way to the 1800s. Since the early 1300s, Norway had either belonged to Denmark or Sweden or been forced to join the Kalmar Union as an independent state.

It is worth mentioning that a minor war broke out between Sweden and Norway in August of 1814, as a result of the tension after Norway’s independence. This led to the countries uniting in a union again. However, the constitution was still valid which meant that Norway could enter the union with Sweden as an independent state.

Another historical event that has come to bear meaning on syttende mai, is the end of the Second World War in Norway. Although Norway’s Liberation Day was officially on May 8, 1945, and is considered a flag day, it is not widely celebrated nor an official holiday. Instead, an additional reason and a broader meaning were given to the syttende mai celebrations – yet again independence from an oppressor, but this time, the Nazi regime.  

Therefore, it comes as little surprise that syttende mai tops the list of most important holidays in Scandinavia. Fiercely celebrated by Norwegians, and happily championed by Swedes and Danes alike.

Happy Independence Day, Norway!

This article was originally published on May 17, 2018.


  1. The history of the union is way off. We dissolved the union with Denmark in 1814 in an attempt to avoid world politics but because of Denmark’s position after the napoleonic wars and Sweden’s (both began the wars as neutrals) the Congress of Vienna granted Sweden Norway. It did lead to a war that many believe Norway could have won given the state of the Swedish military at the time. Instead the elected monarch (part of the Danish house) abdicated and this lead to a negotiated union. By the end of the century though Sweden was ignoring Norway’s foreign policy needs especially with trade so in 1905 the ties were severed and Prince Carl of Denmark was elected King. He took the name Haakon VII and his motto was Alt For Norge.


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