HomeHistory of the 17th of May

Marchers at a historic 17th of May Parade in Seattle.
Marchers at a historic 17th of May Parade in Seattle.

What is the 17th of May?

Norwegian Constitution Day is the official National Day of Norway, celebrated on the 17th of May. Among Norwegians, the day is referred to simply as “Syttende Mai” (17th of May) or Grunnlovsdagen (The Constitution Day).

The Constitution, declaring Norway an independent nation, was signed at Eidsvoll, Norway on May 17, 1814. The celebration of this day began spontaneously among students and other people in early years. At that time, Norway was under Swedish rule, and for many years the King of Sweden was reluctant to allow such celebrations. For a few years in the 1820s, King Carl Johan forbade the celebrations.

It was not until 1836 that anyone ventured to hold a public address on behalf of the day. That year, official celebration was initiated by the monument of the late politician Christian Krogh, known to have stopped the king from gaining too much personal power. In 1905, Norway separated from Sweden peacefully and became a truly independent country.  By historical coincidence, World War II ended when the occupying German forces surrendered in Norway on May 8, 1945, just nine days before that year’s Constitution Day. Even if the Liberation Day is an official flag day in Norway, the day is not broadly celebrated. Instead, a new and broader meaning had been added to the celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day on May 17.

A noteworthy aspect of Norwegian Constitution Day is it’s very non-military nature. All over Norway, children parade with an abundance of flags. Each elementary school district arranges its own parade with marching bands between schools. The parade takes the children through the community, often making stops at homes of senior citizens, war memorials, etc. The longest parade is in Oslo, where some 100,000 people travel to participate in the festivities. The Oslo parade includes close to 100 schools, marching bands, and passes by the Royal Palace, where the Royal Family greets the people from the main balcony.

Outside of Norway, Norwegians all over the world celebrate the 17th of May with parades, speeches, and more. Since 1889, the Norwegian-American community of Seattle has celebrated the 17th of May, and now the festivities in Seattle is touted as the third largest 17th of May celebration in the world, behind Oslo and Bergen. Join us this year as we celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day with a Norwegian-American flair!

Source: Royal
Norwegian Embassy/Norway.org

Norwegian 17th of May Celebration in Seattle

In May 1889, before Washington became a state in November and before the Great Seattle Fire in June, the first recorded Seventeenth of May celebrations in Seattle were held. The two-day celebrations started on Friday, May 17 with two banquets. The first was for both men and women held at the Bellevue Hotel for the cost of a dollar. The arrangements were made by H.C. Wahlberg with entertainment provided by a quartet. Later that evening an elegant dinner for men only was served around 11PM at The Arlington Hotel. It was arranged by Frank Oleson and included toasts for The Seventeenth of May, Seattle, The Ladies, America, and Liberty. The ten-course menu written in French; included caviar, fillet of sole, asparagus, and finished with cigars and fine liqueurs all for the price of $5.00. The party dispersed at 3AM.

A 17th of May at the Armory where the early parade started.
A 17th of May at the Armory where the early parade started.

The next day, there was a large celebration for everyone at the Armory Hall. It featured speeches in Norwegian by Erik Thuland and in English by Judge R. B. Albertson. Mrs. E. Bjerknes spoke for the women with John H. McGraw, who was Governor of the state of Washington from 1893-1897, also speaking. The first committee was headed by attorney Frank Oleson, the first editor of the Washington Posten, then the Western Viking, and now Norwegian American Weekly; his brother Richard Oleson, Alf Magnus, Henning Blomberg, Julius Sunde, the Washington Posten’s plant supervisor; Johan Blaauw who became editor of the Tacoma Tidende, and restaurateur Carl Normann.

Over the years, the celebration has been at; Ranke Hall, Christensen Hall, the Moore Theater, Norway Hall, the Civic Auditorium, Masonic Temple, the Opera House, Norway Center, The Backstage, and is currently held at Leif Erikson Hall. Madison Park, Salmon Bay Park, Volunteer Park, and Leschi Park were also the scene of many a celebration. Norwegian-Americans traveled by steamer to jointly celebrate the day in Mukilteo, Vashon Island, Poulsbo, and Seattle. Governors, state and federal congressmen, ambassadors, members of Norwegian parliament, judges, professors, mayors, and publishers have all given inspiring speeches for the day. In 1922 Captain Roald Amundsen and members of his team attended the celebration while the last snowdrifts were being shoveled out of the road on the summit of Snoqualmie.

There were two celebrations in 1897. On May 15, the organizing committee was Den Norske Arbeiderforening, or Norwegian Workingmen’s Society. It featured a vaudeville performance of Abekatten at Ranke’s Hall followed by a ball with the Langer & Luebens Orkester. Den Norske Klubben, later known as The Norse Club held the celebration on May 17 at Ranke’s Hall, too. Cost was 25 cents per person; children under 12 were free. The evening was presided over by C.M. Thuland. Mr. E. Berrum spoke in Norwegian about the history of Norway and attorney Melvin Winstock spoke in English. Music played an important element with the Norwegian Male Orchestra, several soprano pieces written by Grieg, and a violin duet. The highlight of the program was a performance of Not Even Jealous in Norwegian by an amateur theater group. The evening concluded with the music of the Langer & Luebens Orchestra.

In 1901, before Norway actually received its independence from Sweden in 1905, the day was celebrated at Madison Park. In the afternoon there was music by the Wagner Music Corps with a parade and then tour of the steam baths on Lake Washington. Over 2000 people celebrated. The Pavilion was decorated with flowers, roses, palms and hundreds of electric lights in red, white, and blue. In the evening there were speeches in Norwegian by C. M. Thuland and English by Col Alden J. Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times. Mrs. Astrid Petersen played a violin solo and Mrs. Loe sang. The event was chaired by O. C. Narvestad and organized by The Norse Club of Seattle. Fireworks blazed across the sky in the evening. The ball, which cost 25 cents, started with a Grand March to the music by Luebens Orchestra. The evening of dancing didn’t end until 2AM!

There was also a celebration in the neighboring town of Ballard beginning with a children’s parade from a church to Ballard Park / Salmon Bay Park where there were speeches by Ballard’s Mayor Johnson, Pastor Syrdal, and Col. Alden J. Blethen, who spoke later in the evening at the Madison Park festivities. Music and songs were also part of the day’s event. In the evening there was a concert and speeches at the Germania Hall including a speech by the state’s auditor, Mr. Clausen. Miss Stromburg and Grace Davenport sang solos. The evening ended with the singing of Ja vi elsker dette landet, now Norway’s national anthem.

Often there were at least two celebrations each year hosted by different groups. Finally in 1929, the tradition of having a large celebration held in one place began. It was arranged by a committee of representatives from many Norwegian organizations as it is today with the Norwegian Seventeenth of May Committee. Some years after Seattle Center was built in 1962, there was a children’s parade and processional led by the Leif Erikson Lodge Drill Team to Norway Center, just a few blocks away. A traditional program followed with anthems, performances, speeches and dancing until late!

The community parade in Ballard started in 1974.

The Complete Story of Syttende Mai

Terje I. Leiren, Professor Emeritus of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington, tells you every detail of how the 17th of May became Norway’s Constitution Day.