THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SYTTENDE MAI- THE 17TH OF MAY - By Ruell Solberg, Jr.
Syttende Mai has a similar significance in Norway as July 4th has in the United States of America. It marks the country's declaration of independence and the triumph of constitutional government. This day is also called Constitution Day and National Day and is a great spring festival in Norway.
The following provides some background for why Norwegians place such great emphasis on Syttende Mai. The Norwegians have a proud and independent past, dating from before the time of the Viking era, which was from about 790 to 1050 A.D. when they were very prominent and greatly feared in much of the world. Unknown to many people, the Vikings established the oldest surviving parliament in the world at Iceland over a thousand years ago in 930 A.D. So, many aspects of independence and self-government are part of Norway's history from way back.
During the Viking era, much of present-day Norway was united from many local chieftains and many kings to one king. But, then after the Viking era, many regional leaders claimed the throne. There was over 100 years of civil wars in Norway and soon north German merchants largely controlled the economy. Norway became dependent on them for grain imports. Norway was weakened further until the bubonic plague killed about half to two-thirds of the people in the mid-1300s.
Shortly after the plague, Margrete was the wife of the king of Norway, Haakon VI. She was also the daughter of the King of Denmark. When her father died, Margrete, who was already the queen of Norway, became the ruler of Denmark. Margrete's husband died soon thereafter, and she became the ruler of Norway as well. Then, Margrete was elected to rule Sweden, also. So, Margrete united Norway, Sweden, and Denmark with the power centered in Denmark. But, Sweden broke away after about 125 years in 1448.
Then, Norway grew weaker and Denmark grew stronger. Norway was even declared a Danish province. During the Napoleonic wars, Denmark sided with France against Great Britain. However, Britain was Norway's chief trading partner at the time, so the Norwegians had a very difficult time and many starved. After a while during those wars, the Norwegians began to trade secretly with the British again and began to manage their own affairs.
During those Napoleonic wars, the Swedes were allied with Great Britain and defeated Denmark. Then, Denmark gave Norway to Sweden. However, the Norwegians did not recognize the treaty (of Kiel) that did this and met and drew up a constitution for an independent Norway. That constitution was adopted on May 17, 1814, but Sweden refused it and defeated the Norwegian troops. Then, Norway was forced to accept the king of Sweden as their ruler also.
But, after nearly 100 years of Swedish rule and wars between Norway and Sweden near the end of that time, all but 184 out of 368,392 voters in Norway voted for independence in 1905; and it was granted.
In some respects, Norway being governed by Denmark and then Sweden would be similar to the state of Texas being governed by the state of Oklahoma or Arkansas. Texans would not like that.
It is easier to understand the rivalry between Norway and Sweden because of the imposition governmentally by Sweden on Norway and the wars and other hard feelings between them. Out of that, ethnic sayings became popular, such as "a thousand Swedes, running through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian."
Norway's independence is much more recent than America's (less than 90 years compared to 225), and observance of Syttende Mai is still a very important occasion in Norway. They have lots of parades and celebrations all during that day with everyone participating, especially the school children with their school bands and school banners.
This history, written by Ruell Solberg, Jr. of San Antonio, formerly of Cranfills Gap, was inserted in the 2002 Syttende Mai program, complements of the Bosque County Chapter of the Norwegian Society of Texas.