If you’re new to Norway; every year on the 17 May you will see a celebration and a spectacle worthy of investigating. Everything stops. For the whole day people are milling in the streets greeting each other, waving flags and shouting ‘hurra for syttende mai’. On this day in 1814 Norway gained independence from Denmark and the constitution was signed. The day is one of the most important national holidays and a celebration of national identity. What to wear and how to celebrate can be complicated – especially if you aren’t originally from Norway or if you aren’t white. Dress is also complicatedfor people with Sami roots –namely how to decide what costume to wear or identity to celebrate; Norwegian or Sami?
It is a national holiday and it starts early. From first thing in the morning people post pictures of themselves in regional, traditional dresses known as bunad. They pose with flags in their hands with a caption saying; ‘gratulerer med dagen’ (literarily meaning ‘congratulations on the day’), the same greeting as when you see people celebrating their birthday. The centre of towns and villages are blocked from ordinary traffic and from 7 am the brass bands start a day of processions; playing and marching. Politicians and dignitaries hold speeches about independence with a wide range of messages; often inclusive with a focus on multiculturalism, but many also with a message of assimilation and how great Norway is. People are dressed up to the nines and many wear the bunad which is seen by Norwegian anthropologist, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, as‘a symbol of rootedness and belonging local and national’. Eriksen stresses that the bunad symbolises Norwegianness, regional roots and national identity.
About half of the Norwegian population now own a bunad. It is more expensive than most designer dresses; adorned with silver and handmade embroidery and not something most people used to be able to afford. There have been heated debates about the authenticity of the bunad – especially in recent years when some of the production was outsourced to cheap labour in China or Estonia.
There are also strict social norms surrounding the bunad; who can wear it, and rules about family lineage that connect people to a particular place. The bunad’s origin and ‘fake’ versions are also issues of conflict and there is a bunadcouncil, Bunad- og folkedraktrådet established by the Norwegian Ministry of Culture to advise on bunad issues.
The flag also has a more or less permanent presence in Scandinavia in general, and no more so than in Norway. Waving or flying the Norwegian flag is not restricted to the 17 May and, as with the bunad,there are strict rules as to when the flag can be raised. For some the flag represent an extreme form of nationalism. It marks deep national identity or maybe a deep national anxiety, but the use of the flag can also be linked to its ban during the Nazi occupation of Norway and Denmark between 1940 and 1945. Significantly, the first 17 May celebration post-War was only a few days after independence in May 1945. In Norway, you find flag poles in people’s gardens, on Christmas trees, at sports events, birthday cakes, people greet each other at airports with flags and they often fly permanently at holiday homes. Even at university graduations abroad, Scandinavians feel the need to mark their nationality by posing with flags. Many Norwegians who travel abroad on the 17May take flags to make sure they can join in and share on Facebook poses in their finery, waving flags or they may find other Norwegians to share in the celebration.
Every spring there are heated debates about the 17 May celebrations in media and online comments on articles, in blogs and on social media. They can be particularly racist. The radical right takes offence at immigrants or people with no ‘blood’ connection to Norway wearing a bunad. Bloggers and commentators are often provoked by immigrants’ presence on the 17May. This year a regular blogger for the newspaper NettavisenKarine Haaland, took NRK (Norsk Rikskringkasting , the national broadcasting service) to task as the journalist covering the 17 May nationally was not in her eyes ‘ethnically Norwegian’. She accused NRK of propaganda and bias – saying: ‘now ethnic Norwegians are being forced to watch non-ethnic Norwegians even on the 17th of May’. Positive comments on the article received hundreds of ‘likes’, but the paper was forced to issue an apology to the journalist, Noman Mubashir. The editor Gunnar Stavrum had previously defended it in the name of freedom of speech. Many are also very offended when they see non Norwegian flags used during the celebration or in processions.
The radical right gets very excited every year when some local authorities let immigrant children carry other national flags in processions. Many mayors ban international flags in the children’s procession but the conservative mayor in Stavanger, Christine Sagen Helgø, encouraged children to bring flags from all over the world, and said she was embarrassed by the actions of other mayors who had banned any other flags. That some mayors have allowed a variety of flags that reflect people’s complex identities in processions on the 17May has caused endless discussions and confrontations in the streets as well as in the media, especially social media which is full of hate speech against minorities and liberals both on the left and the right. Little attention is given to the fact that peopleare driving around with the confederate flag especially in the county of Østfold where there is a big community of old American car enthusiasts
In sum, then, the 17 May celebrations show a set of antagonisms within Norwegian and Scandinavia more generally between exclusive and multicultural identities. The wearing of the Bunad and the raising of the Norwegian flag can reaffirm an exclusivist form of national identity – though some progressive minded officials and individuals are trying to change this. As highlighted, however, such mainstream forms of national belonging continue to be high-jacked by the radical right – putting their own ethno-nationalist and chauvinistic spin on such celebrations. In some senses, then, the 17 May is seen by the radical right as a struggle for the very soul of a nation – pitting a native in group against a native outgroup and thus what it means to be ‘truly’ Norwegian. Whither the thought.
Dr. Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds. See her profile here.
© Dr. Mette Wiggen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).