17 May – Norway’s National Day – and Russ
Norwegian national day since the signing of the constitution in 1814, 17 May is celebrated with a parade through the streets of every city, town and tiny outpost community, as well as anywhere abroad where two or more Norwegians gather, from Minneapolis to Manukau. Rather than a military parade, though, this one’s for children. School by school, children march through city centres, all dressed up, singing and waving flags.
If you’re not a child or a teacher, you’re probably watching the parade and wearing a bunad, the national costume. Better get there early, it gets very crowded. Every little community is crammed full or people, come rain or shine. An American ex-pat friend of mine can’t get his head around that. Why not cancel if the weather is bad? Have we not heard of rain checks? That would be very un-Norwegian. Up here, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothes. Rain, snow, even freezing hail storms – on 17 May, no one is deterred; everyone is outdoors.
The 17 May Parade in Oslo includes a stop at the Royal Palace, where King Harald, Queen Sonja and their children stand on the balcony for hours, waving to the children directly below. Lively, yet peaceful; not a weapon in sight.
Livelier still are the Russ – the high school graduates, wearing red overalls, hats with tassels, whistles and wooden whips. The overalls have likely been worn for 2 – 3 weeks and not been washed (if you’re caught washing your overalls, you have to cut off a trouser leg). Also, chances are the Russ are pretty drunk – from beer and lack of sleep. The period between 1 May – 17 May is called the Russetid, and is generally one long period of debauchery; a continuous party with sex, beer and rock’n’roll.
During the Russetid, you collect souvenirs – “knots” in the tassel – according to mad little challenges you undertake. The traditional ones, first introduced in the 1940s, include one knot pr night spent awake, one match stick for each reprimand by a police officer and one bottle cap for drinking 24 bottles of beer in 24 hours.
Every year, the knots challenges become more creative. They’re also irreverent and controversial. I’ll keep it relatively civilized, but if you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading here. If not, well, here are a few that weren’t around in my days, in the 80s:
- a twig in your tassel – for spending a night in a tree
- a wine cork – for drinking a litre of wine in 30 minutes
- a pine cone – for having sex with a fellow Russ outdoors
- a feather – for tying a teacher to a flag pole, then dance around it for at least one minute
- a pen cap – for having at least 5 teachers autograph your underwear
- a supermarket plastic bag – for making out with at least 5 different people in one night
- a rubber (that’s eraser for you Americans) – for spending an entire class period underneath your desk, whilst actively participating in class discussions
- a small Norwegian flag – for singing the national anthem in a public place without any trousers on
- a piece of chalk – for giving the wrong answer to every question the teacher asks during an entire school day (again active participation is required)
- a yellow jellybean man (a popular sweet) – for wearing only underwear for an entire class period
- a pair of wax-lips – for kissing a police officer
- a dog biscuit – for crawling through a supermarket on your hands and knees, barking and biting people in the legs
I think I’ll stop there, folks.
If you’re a non-drinker, you can still earn knots for your tassel, including:
- a piece of carton – for drinking 1 litre of chocolate milk in 1 minute
- a cheese packet label – for eating 2 kilos of cheese in 1 day
- a non-alcoholic bottle cap – for not drinking any alcohol during the entire Russetid
- a piece of bread – for wearing bread instead of shoes for an entire day
If you’re thinking of visiting Norway, try to get here on 17 May. There’s nothing quite like this anywhere.
photo by Not Forgotten on Flickr