Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Days in May

One thing I really dig about Norway is the over-abundance of holidays in the month of May.

On May 1, there’s May Day, also known as Labor Day. Labor Day is really about recognizing workers’ rights by… not working for the day.  Right on.

May 13 is Ascension Day, which is known as Kristi Himmelfartsdag, literally translated as ‘Christ’s sky speed day’. It does what it says on the tin, I suppose.

May 17 is known as Constitution Day, or Syttende Mai, and celebrates the signing of Norway’s constitution, which marked an independent Norway… or so one would think. Norway was actually still under Swedish rule when the Norwegian constitution was signed in 1814 and was not technically a fully autonomous state until 1905 (the years in between Norway had her own government but was in a ‘loose personal union’* with Sweden). But let’s not trifle with historical details. The 17th of May is about watching cute kids parade about in bunads.**

May 24 is Whit Monday, or Pinsedag, which marks the day after Pentecost, which is the day that the Holy Spirit visited Jesus’ disciples 50 days after Easter. Really, the holiday is Whit Sunday, but don’t hate on Whit Monday for being an afterthought – it still means you don’t have to go to work, and I am fully prepared to celebrate that fact under any guise.

One day that is not celebrated as a public holiday is today, May 8, known in Norway as Frigjøringsdagen, or ‘Liberation Day’. WWII history buffs (and hopefully others who have a general awareness of world events), know May 8 as V-E Day, the day that the unconditional surrender of Nazi forces to the Allies was ratified in Berlin and thus officially ending Nazi occupation in Europe.

What many living outside of Norway (and, let’s be honest, probably a few living inside as well) don’t realize is that Norway was continuously occupied by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945, and the land still bears the marks, both emotionally and physically.

The occupation halted all existing trade agreements between Norway and all trading partners except Germany, so the Norwegian economy was paralyzed overnight and scarcity of resources and the need to become self-sufficient in terms of food production and other resources became necessary requirements for most Norwegian citizens. This situation translated into an enduring attitude of responsibility with resources and a general frugality amongst Norwegians. If you want to read a little more about the Nazi occupation, check this out. (Hey, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel if someone else said it better and said it already.)

In fact, you can still find evidence of Nazi bunkers dotted all over the Norwegian landscape, particularly near the beaches. And if you listen to local historians here in Stavanger, the airport, Sola, was a Nazi airbase during WWII, and stories abound that German pilots hated to land there as there is a fjord immediately at the base of the runway. Apparently a few unfortunate souls missed the landing strip!

So while May 8 might not be formally acknowledged as a holiday here in Norway, I think it is worth remembering the day as it played an important role in the formation of Norway's modern day identity. Spare a thought today for those that played a part in the liberation and rebuilding of the country. 
* ‘Loose personal union’ literally means that Norway and Sweden were united under one monarch, even if the phrase actually reminds you more of that special friend you had in between relationships in college. This 'union' occurred because the Swedes demanded, under the 1814 Convention of Moss, that the Norwegian heir apparent at the time, Prince Christian Frederik, relinquish his claim to the Norwegian throne. Incidentally, the Treaty of Moss (August 1814) was signed three months after the Norwegian constitution was signed (May 1814). Essentially the Swedes refused to acknowledge the Norwegian constitution unless a few demands were met, one of them being that poor old Prince Chris had to feck off to Denmark. In November 1814, the Norwegians elected the Swedish monarch, King Charles XIII, as king of Norway as well. Word is the king never even visited Norway once, which I am guessing miffed the Norwegians a little.
** Don’t get me wrong – I am not underestimating the importance of what May 17 marks in terms of Norwegian history. But these days it really is all about the kids and parades, which is totally cute to see and fine by me. It’s sort of like how July 4th in the US is a little less about Thomas Jefferson and a little more about how many hot dogs you can eat before watching the fireworks. Holidays evolve.


  1. Fantastic information! It explains a lot!

  2. Hi, just wanted to say I enjoy your blog! I also live in Stavanger and write an occasional blog, please do check it out:

    I also like the number of holidays we get in May, although it's always a shame when one of them falls on a weekend and you don't get a day off after all.

  3. yeap: may is "the" months here...
    I love it!