May is the month of national holidays in Norway. Labor day, Ascension day, Whit Sunday, Whit Monday and Constitution day are all packed within a two-week period, so there are plenty of vacation days to be outside and enjoy the round-the-clock sunlight. Most Tromsø residents head to the hills to go climbing and catch the last of the spring skiing. Hard to beat T-shirt weather on the mountaintop! A huge thanks to friends here in Tromsø with cars, skis, and gear to make all the outdoor fun possible.
Constitution day on the 17th of May is the most important holiday by far. The Norwegians go all out. Many dress up in their national costume called the “bunad.” These beautiful but wildly-expensive outfits come in different styles to represent the regions in Norway. Bunads are typically hand-embroidered and worn with silver jewelry passed down through generations. Another perk is getting to wear “bunad shoes” with ornate silver buckles that remind me of the trendy footwear pilgrims wore on the Mayflower.
I was so lucky to get to borrow a bunad to wear for the 17th of May from Rigmor, a kind-hearted work colleague at the University of Tromsø. Rigmor is from Målselv, a fjord-ringed municipality in northern Norway. As you can see from the pictures, the Målselv bunads are typically black or navy with colorful embroidery. Rigmor did all of the needlework on the bunad below herself! No words can express what the gift of wearing a bunad on the 17th of May meant to me, as a Norwegian-American. I also had another great present: an American visitor, and good friend from college, Brett. This was our first 17th of May celebrated in Norway, so we were determined to try it all.
Norwegians start the day right with a big 17th of May breakfast including champagne (!). We gathered with the Tromsø women’s choir around a table decked with smoked salmon, bread rolls, fruit, cakes, and more. The choir also has a tradition of drinking “nubbar” with breakfast. Ladies of the choir filled me in on the word “nubbar” since it wasn’t part of the vocabulary we learned in NORW 253: Norwegian Conversation & Composition back at St. Olaf. “Nubbar” is the slang word for tiny bottles of aquavit: a strong, bitter-tasting cornerstone of Scandinavian drinking culture.
The 17th of May started with a blustery concert outside the beautiful Tromsø library. We sang by the wooden statue of Alberte, a fictional Norwegian character by author Cora Sandel. Alberte is one of the few statues of women in Tromsø, so it was only fitting for an all-women’s choir to welcome in the national day by her side.
Later, we marched to the concert hall to join the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra and Tromsø boys choir. We performed patriotic repertoire like “Norge mitt Norge” and “Tromsø Skjønne Ø i Norden.” Exiting the concert hall, we met the Russ parade in full swing. Russ in Norway is a rowdy celebration lasting several weeks for Norwegians who will soon graduate from high school. Russ teenagers wear ridiculous jumpsuits and drive around in brightly-painted vans while blaring music. Cool. Russ in Norway is something high schoolers look forward to (and save cash for) for years. They even have their own Russ business cards made with pictures and inappropriate jokes to hand out to small children who ask for them. The 17th of May and the parade marks the end of the Russ weeks every year in Norway.
After the Russ parade, the “Citizens Parade” began. Every club, sport, and group in Tromsø made an appearance. The greyhound owners of Northern Norway turned up, and so did the Tromsø kid’s ski team that showed off by racing on pavement on their old skis during their parade. Fittingly, it started to snow. We proudly belted the national anthem “Ja, vi elsker” as we marched down the main street.
At the end of the parade, it was time to unbutton the bunad and kick off our pilgrim shoes. Hot dogs, ice cream, and a day full of memories. This 17th of May was truly unforgettable.
Later in the week, I was lucky to receive even more American visitors. My Lincoln High School pal, Amy, and her mother Susan, joined us for a weekend of sunshine and exploring a nearby island, Sommarøy. We even tried a local delicacy for breakfast: seabird eggs (pictured below). It was sad to see the visitors go, and even more crazy to think that I’ll be back in the U.S. in just two months!