The lawns of Oslo’s Slottsparken are packed with picnickers and partying Norwegians. In the distance a stout figure in a top hat waves from a balcony. Beside me a man wearing a white cape and a hat with a shiny buckle and a woman dressed like Heidi’s grandmother wave back at their king with gusto.
I had begun to encounter them en masse soon after leaving my hotel that morning: men, women, children and, in some instances, their pets, all decked out in regional costume – dirndl dresses, shawls, neckerchiefs and frock coats; shiny top hats; shoes with big silver buckles; bright-buttoned breeches; crisp white blouses with pirate sleeves. Babies in lacy bonnets; dogs wearing red, white and blue ribbons; taxis, trams and prams, too, bearing the colours of the national flag. I was glad I had heeded a Norwegian friend’s advice to “dress smart”: even those spectators not in historic costume were suited and frocked up to the nines.
Norway’s Constitution Day on May 17 is the fancy dress party to end them all. This day of marching by school and music groups, which takes place in towns and villages up and down the land, is covered like a major sporting event on national TV. In Oslo the march begins at Festningsplassen at 9am and heads towards its climax, via the palace, at the town hall at around 1pm. In the afternoon high school students, traditionally dressed in red dungarees, take over the streets to celebrate their impending graduation while the rest of the population retires to the city’s bars and restaurants or gathers beside the harbour area, Aker Brygge, to indulge in helgefylla (binge-drinking).
I join them here in the sunshine, sitting on the steps by the sea with the striking shard-of-ice opera house before me, empty champagne bottles cluttering the gutters at my feet. For all the quite horrendous cost of booze in Norway, the wallets are clearly open today. The cafés have moved their tables out on to the streets. On Frognerveien, a street packed with restaurants and bars, people are hanging out of first-floor windows. Women in heavy, ankle-length embroidered skirts dance with men in capes, kids in red dungarees pair off in dark corners.
Of all the Nordic peoples, only the Norwegians commemorate their national coming of age with such fervour, spending up to £6,000 on their costumes or bunad, of which there are more than 100 regional varieties. On closer inspection, the reasons for their celebrations appear opaque. The split from Denmark and the writing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814 – which is what they are supposed to be commemorating today – was only the beginning of a long, slow, rather low-key effort that did not culminate in full independence from their new masters, Sweden, until 1905. Since then, the end of German occupation on May 8 1945 has also been thrown into the May 17 mix and, thanks to Norway’s oil money, they certainly have something to celebrate. As a result, this is Scandinavia’s most extraordinary public party and by far the best day of the year to find yourself in Oslo, even more so when May 17 falls on a Saturday as it does this year.
It is easy to mock their Middle Earth garb but the annual parade of notably multi-ethnic schoolchildren through the streets of Oslo – which lies at the heart of the day’s celebrations – has taken on a new meaning in recent years following the atrocities of Anders Behring Breivik on July 22 2011, and the rise to prominence of Norway’s rightwing Progress party in the new coalition government (Breivik was a former member of the party).
Seen in this light, and more broadly in a region where the right wing are on the rise, applauding a Sikh boy as he parades in an authentic bunad or a Somali girl carrying a flagpole twice her height almost becomes an act of defiance. There is nothing but goodwill on the streets of Oslo today. This is a march in the right direction.
For more on Constitution Day, see visitnorway.com. Michael Booth is author of ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle’ (Jonathan Cape)