Constitution Day

It’s never happened to me, but getting hit over the head with a full can of Coke is probably quite painful.

I winced as I watched the girl swing her fist forward, projecting the cold metal cylinder towards the other girl’s head. I waited for blood—but someone stopped her just in time.

A Norwegian man standing at the bus stop jumped into the fight and grabbed the young woman’s wrist, coaxing the homemade weapon from her hand and gently encouraging everyone to calm the heck down.

That’s so Norwegian, I thought. Always the peacemakers—here on the night streets of Oslo as well as everywhere else in the world.

The women were Muslims, both wore the hijab, and they were part of a pack of colorfully-dressed women all screaming at one another. Only after they quieted down did the peacemaker walk away, the situation defused.

“These girls are African,” my taxi driver told me, shaking his head. “They are from my country—Somalia.” In the ninety seconds it took the traffic light to change from red to green, we had witnessed the start and finish of a miniature battle.

“They grow up with war—they have no discipline,” he explained. His name was Ismayil and he came to Norway ten years ago from Mogadishu.

“There is no government in Somalia—people have nothing,” he shrugged. And so I asked him how he liked Norway, where there is actually quite a lot of government.

“I love Norway. It’s cool, man. So cool,” he responded.

“Cold? Yes?” I tried to correct his English. “It’s very cold in winter?”

“No, I meant cool. Yes, it’s cold, but it’s also cool. Norway is so cool—they have everything you want here.”

As we drove through the darkened streets of Oslo, Ismayil compared his two countries: his home in Somalia, wracked by civil war and constant instability, and his home in Norway, safe, secure and “cool”. Outside on the sidewalks, partygoers dressed in national costume stumbled home from their day of celebration, syttende mai (May 17th) or Constitution Day. Many of the men wore wooly, felt knee-length pants and the women, embroidered skirts and jackets with sparkling silver brooches. Since six o’clock that morning, I had watched thousands and thousands of Norwegians march around their capital in their costumes, remarkably proud for a people so humble.

“Do you know how much those women’s outfits cost—the whole complete outfit?” Ismayil asked me, not waiting for my answer.

“50,000 kroner!” he exclaimed. “That’s more than $9,000. And they only wear it three times a year: May 7th, Christmas, and for confirmations or weddings.” He pondered it all for a second and then added, “I guess they can wear it their whole lives—for 50 to 60 years.”

That very morning I had met a woman who was the third generation to wear her dress, an authentic national costume from the Gudbrandsdalen region. With wet eyes she told me about her own grandfather who lived in Oslo during World War II. Her mother stood beside her and told me the story:

“When the German bombs exploded over the city, everything shattered. My father ran from the house, but he took this dress. It was the only thing he saved.” She pointed to a top corner of the black velvety material.

“His blood was all over the dress, but over the years we have managed to wash most of it away.”

These were not merely costumes for dressing up, I thought. Rather, these clothes are like passports, a kind of fashion that shouts, “I am Norwegian!”

The same can be said for the country’s red, white, and blue flag, of which I’d seen several that day. In fact, everyone was carrying or wearing a flag. I can honestly say that I had never seen so much flag-waving in my life, and I’m an American. We love our flag and wear it proudly, but I’d venture to say that Norway’s Constitution Day has more flags per capita than the USA on July 4th.

That morning, I had watched as the city’s schoolchildren march in front of the king, most of them carrying full-size Norwegian flags, lowering them over the heads as a sign of respect as they passed beneath his balcony at the royal palace.

“It’s fantastic!” said Ismayil, excitedly. “This Constitution Day, the way they all dress up and make a parade of people with flags, I love it! In Africa, all the parades are with the military, trying to show off how strong they are, but in Norway, the strength is the people—only the children march and everything is peaceful.”

Ismayil was right, but things were not always this peaceful in Norway. Historically speaking, there was a time when Norway was not so different from his own Somalia: violent, disorderly, and controlled by warring clans.

By the 14th century, Norway had lost its sovereignty to foreign kings—or rather, a queen. When King Haakon VI of Norway married Queen Margaret I of Denmark, his kingdom merged with hers, and when her own son died, she wrangled to have her grand-nephew, Eric of Pomerania crowned King of Norway in 1392.

Histories like this exemplify the major flaw of monarchy. That through marriage (and a few small wars), the whole of Scandinavia fell under the control of one 15-year-old Polish orphan. Thus began the Kalmar Union, which lasted 124 years (1397–1521), after which Norway was absorbed into the Kingdom of Denmark for the next 278 years (1536-1814).

In 1814, Sweden broke away from Denmark, taking Norway with it. Norwegians jumped at the chance for self-determination, adopting their own constitution on May 17th (25 years after the adoption of the American constitution). But constitution or no, Norway was not a free country—Sweden did not recognize the country’s sovereignty for almost another full century.

Altogether, Norway was not a free country for more than 500 years. Lack of freedom meant lack of opportunity, and a few generations ago, Norway was the poorest country in Europe. The people had no work and no food and no chances—so they picked up and left. From 1825 to 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians emigrated to North America—one third of the country at the time—and today, almost 5 million Americans claim Norwegian ancestry (the same number as Norway’s current population). What’s remarkable is that while Norway struggled against Sweden for independence, Norwegian-Americans sent money and support back home. I like to think that while Norwegians contributed to building America, America helped build democracy in Norway.

On June 7, 1905, the union of Sweden was finally dissolved and Haakon VII was crowned King of Norway—a king with a constitution before him. The following year, the royal family took their places on the balcony of the Royal Palace and waved to the children. A tradition was born that has followed ever since—with the exception of World War II, when once again Norway was occupied by foreign powers. But now, in 2012, I watched the same procession of children pass before the king, a reverent ritual where Norwegians remember the price of their freedom.

Norway’s history is as long as its shoreline, but the independent country of today is younger than the trees that grow on its granite hills. After a swift change in fortune, Norway is now the wealthiest country in Europe—consistently ranked number one on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. The unemployment rate is steady at 3 percent and life is good. Nobody’s leaving Norway for a better life elsewhere. Rather, people come to Norway for a better life.

In the three days I’ve been in Oslo, I have yet to meet a bartender or waiter that isn’t from Sweden. The irony of history has shifted the two country’s roles—as a member of the European Union, Sweden is struggling with economic woes and unemployment. Thus, young Swedes flock to Norway for work. (Meanwhile, Norwegians drive across the border to go shopping in Sweden: wine, food, cigarettes, clothes and gasoline are all much cheaper in Sweden.)

Not forgetting their own past struggles, Norway now welcomes immigrants from some of the poorest and violent countries in the world. Somalia is just one example—a country so dysfunctional and impoverished it doesn’t even rank on the Human Development Index because the United Nations are unable to collect the data necessary for an assessment.

The day after Constitution Day, I left the city on a train. Sitting next to me was Nicole, a young woman with dark hair and dark eyes who works as a dishwasher at a well-known restaurant in Oslo.

“I worked a ten-hour shift yesterday,” she puffed. “Constitution Day is the busiest day of the year.” I’ve been a dishwasher before and ten hours on your feet, washing dishes, sounds like hell to me. But the difference is that Nicole earns 120 kroner an hour—$24 an hour to wash dishes in a restaurant.

Indeed, life is better for Nicole and her family in Norway. She was born in this country, but her father and mother were immigrants—refugees who fled Pinochet’s Chile back in the eighties.

“My father was in the marines and had a choice—he could shoot the people or be shot himself, so he left. First he went to Switzerland, but he really liked Norway, so he moved here. My mother followed six months later.”

Nicole says this all very matter-of-factly, but hearing her father’s story retold in her own voice hints at a painful family history. Like Ismayil from Somalia, Nicole’s family found peace and security in Norway—the peace and security that took more than 500 years to create, and which still comes under threat—be it invading Nazis or else a psychotic killer who tried (and failed) to disrupt Norway’s national sense of non-violence and fairness.

Indeed, Norway is probably the fairest country on earth, and Constitution Day celebrates that particular value to the utmost degree: every child in the country gets to march with flag in hand, waving the red, white, and blue banners and shouting, “Hip, Hip, Hurrah!”

Everyone is included—everyone who loves the beauty, peace and security of Norway gets to be Norwegian and cheer for Norway.

Among all the beer-drinking and singing and kissing in the streets that I witnessed on Constitution Day—the most memorable celebration took place at a traffic light, where an unnamed Norwegian man stopped a fight on the street and saved a girl from getting clunked on the head, teaching a simple but valuable lesson that Norway knows from experience—Let’s not fight.

It’s a lesson worth remembering—at least once a year—and thus I add my own little cheer to the happy noise resounding across Norway on May 17th.

Hip. Hip. Hurrah.


  1. Vigdis Torgeirson
    Cape Coral, Florida
    May 18, 2012, 11:54 am

    Great article and beautiful pictures 🙂

  2. Cathrine Westerby
    Oslo, Norway
    May 18, 2012, 12:25 pm

    It’s fantastic to read such an insightful and intelligent post about the Norwegian constitution day and the historical background. Thank you for publishing this, and I’m glad you had a good time in Oslo. 🙂

  3. Hjorthen
    May 18, 2012, 1:42 pm

    Nice post, glad you liked our country. However. You wrote that a few generations ago Norway was the poorest country in Europe. This is simply not true. Norway has probably never been the poorest country in Europe, and certainly not for the past few generations. Actually, after gaining our freedom from Denmark in 1814, it didn’t take many years before our GDP was at the same size, or maybe even larger than Sweden and Denmark. Sure, we were poorer than we are now, but compared to the rest of Europe, at the same time, Norway wasn’t poor.

  4. Henning
    May 20, 2012, 5:56 am


    Norway is a great country, I’ve lived there for two years and it’s just a beautiful place.

    However, being from Sweden, I couldn’t help but notice some pretty glaring errors that makes me wonder if this whole article was based on assumptions?

    First of all, Sweden has never been a part of Denmark – so Sweden couldn’t “break loose” from Denmark. We just took some land back.

    Second of all, stating that Sweden has economic woes is wrong. While we do have high youth unemployment, our economy is one of the strongest in Europe, and in 2010 we had the fastest growing, most competitive economy in Europe and were also placed in the top for innovation.

    I wouldn’t say that is economic woes. 🙂

    • Andrew Evans
      May 20, 2012, 12:38 pm

      Thanks for your comment and opinions Henning. The only assumption that I make in my post is that Norwegians value their freedom since they were under the control of foreign powers (Denmark and Sweden) for over 500 years.

      As for the history itself, I based that on a chapter of a book that I wrote on the subject. Scandinavian history is very complex, so to say “who lost who” may become a matter of perspective for some.

      In any case, I’m glad to see that Scandinavian rivalries are alive and well, even here on the internet.

      Tack för läsning!
      Lyckönskningar, Andrew

  5. Freddy Panes
    May 21, 2012, 3:56 am

    In the 80s my job took me much around the world and I told my children: there are only 2 countries in this world i wanted to live: “norway or the united states.” reading this blog certainly reminds me of my thoughts then and respect for the norwegian people for their love of country and the sacrifices they have paid to gain that freedom. i still keep my norwegian friends after so many years. thanks for a wonderful article andrew!

  6. Cat
    May 23, 2012, 5:27 pm

    According to my professor, who is proably one of the foremost experts in the world on Norwegian economic history, Norway was one of the ritchest contries in the world 200 years ago. We are of course much better off now, but so is almost everyone. The myth of Norways poverty was created after WWII.

  7. Mill
    May 23, 2012, 6:11 pm

    Well written, thank you:-)

    But, I just have to comment on one thing. You wrote that Norway was Europe’s poorest country a few generations ago. As a history student, it drives me mad :-0
    It’s not true. But I understand that it looks cool to write about a country which was “the poorest and became the richest”. But Norways economy has been in the middle, for a long long time, before it became very strong.

    (I guess you have a lot of readers, so I just HAD to comment).


  8. Zara
    May 24, 2012, 4:30 am

    This was a nice read, thank you. You have looked at Oslo at our best day (17th of May) and with very positive eyes – I’m sure that you can find much of the same in other countries and cultures after all, if you just find the right place and time. I’m norwegian though, so I don’t complain 🙂

    When talking about the history and how we are a young nation, I just want to mention that we are also an old nation. We still identify ourselves with the nation assembed in the Viking age, which already back then had a decently democratic law system with better-than-most rights for women, ex., and most of our Courts of Appeal still have their old Viking names (Frostating, Gulating, Borgarting and Eidsivating).

    • Andrew Evans
      May 24, 2012, 1:57 pm

      Thank you. I am aware that the NATION of Norway is ancient–I have read many of the sagas. Here I am referring to the nation-state of Norway and how they are an example of a country attaining their sovereignty after a very long and patient struggle. Thanks so much for reading and for your comments!

  9. Gladys Nielsen
    Winnipeg,MB Canada
    May 28, 2012, 7:35 am

    I was in Norway in 1985,, the place of my Dad’s birth. I had a grand holiday visiting Mandal where he was born, and in Oslo,as well as the fiords on the west coast. I was lucky to be there on May 17th to celebrate this holiday with my cousins who wore the traditional dress. Beautiful country!and people.

  10. Petter
    May 29, 2012, 12:23 am

    When you live in Norway, it is easy to criticise government and other semi-dysfunctional aspects of society. Sometimes you need an outside perspective to be reminded that it “ain’t so bad”, after all 🙂
    Thank you for your article(s), Andrew

    • Andrew Evans
      May 29, 2012, 12:55 am

      Ha, I’m the same Petter! At home, critical of the government and then when you’re abroad, the most patriotic person on earth. Travel always helps us regain our perspective and count our blessings. Thanks so much for reading!

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  12. Ida
    Stavanger, Norway
    May 30, 2012, 8:44 am

    What a wonderful article. Beautifully written. It was very interesting to read about my country from an “outsiders” view. Hope you enjoyed your stay. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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  14. Amund
    June 13, 2012, 8:15 am

    This was a great read, love all the articles on Norway!

    I am a Norwegian, but I have to agree with the Swede on the independence of Sweden in 1814. If you look at Scandinavian history, Sweden was beyond doubt an independent nation from 1523, when Gustav Wasa was crowned as the king of Sweden. Sweden went on to become a major European power, with a small empire in Eastern Europe at the peak of its power, and waged several wars with Denmark-Norway as an independent nation between 1523 and 1814.

    As for 1814, the history is complex, but Norway was basically a spoil of war that the allies awarded Sweden fro its assistance in defeating Napoleon, whom Denmark-Norway had been supporting.