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From Patriotism to Party Buses: Norway's Unique Traditions

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Tradition in Norway is not a ‘back in my day…’ story told by an aging relative over an open fire. It isn’t limited to the yellowing pages of history books or encased in the glass exhibit boxes of museums.  Rather than exiled to the past tense, Norwegian traditions are alive and kicking.

But celebrations of cultural heritage in Norway aren’t relegated to the prim and the proper, to courteous exchanges and paper-plate buffets. There are two, antithetical sides to tradition in this Scandinavian country - from dignified displays to the unashamedly drunk and disorderly. 

If you were to walk down a Norwegian high street on May 17th, you’d see something a little different to the usual bustling melee of shoppers and commuters. You’d observe buildings adorned in Norwegian flag bunting, the air would ring with the brassy notes of a marching band and the giddy chattering of children’s parades. A sea of waving flags would line the streets and the scent of hotdogs would drift from roadside stands. 

May 17th, Norway’s Constitution Day, or syttende mai, is emphatically circled in Norwegian calendars. A national holiday, it celebrates the day in 1814 when Norway’s constitution was signed in Eidsvoll, declaring Norway an independent kingdom. While it would take until 1905 for Norway to be completely freed from its union with Sweden, 1814 marks the first and most fundamental brick in the road to independence. Norway’s history is still relatively raw, a prominent scar still in the process of healing. Norwegians feel the weight of what it means to be independent, culminating in this zealous, impassioned patriotism. Perhaps that’s why the likes of the syttende mai celebrations stand out brashly against our own modest and muted St George’s Day celebrations.

National parades in Oslo

Stepping out onto a Norwegian street on May 17th, you might blink in bafflement at the revelers, or more specifically, their choice of attire. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled back a few centuries in time. On Constitution Day, Norwegians wear the bunad, the national dress of their ancestors. These heavy, woolen garments are hand made, adorned with exquisite embroidery and intricate tailoring. Each area of Norway has its own unique design of bunad, and Norwegians wear the bunad from the place to which they have the strongest attachment. 

It’s not the torturous struggle to get fidgeting children and glowering teenagers into their Sunday best for a family wedding. There’s no exacerbated sighs when May 17th rolls around. Throughout the generations, there’s a reverent honor in donning the bunad, a way of proudly wearing their nationality on their sleeves.

Bunad from southeast Norway

But within the jubilant parades on Constitution Day, another side of Norway’s heritage can be gleaned. Eyes squinting at the sun, brows furrowed with an inordinate hangover, the graduating classes of Norway’s high schools have undergone quite a different tradition. 

A month previous, you might have heard the raucous rumble of buses along the roads. Or seen the graffitied vehicles streaming past in a quasi-regal parade. A kaleidoscope of neon, pulsing with the low reverb of a thudding bass - welcoming in, with the trailing scent of exhaust fumes and vodka, russvierig. 

My high school prom consisted of oversized dresses, overcooked chicken and ‘Come on Eileen’ on loop. But Norway’s graduation celebration, russvierig, or simply russ, leaves the rest of Europe stood awkwardly in a corner, readjusting their ill-fitting ties and trying to look aloof.

Starting mid April and ending May 17th, russ combines the iconic independence motif of the road trip with the alcoholic excesses of the 21st century, for a month of riotous partying. Students buy up and decorate old buses and vans, and drive around the country attending special russ concerts, partying with friends and drinking unquantifiable amounts of booze. (The Norwegian government hastens to stress that every bus is allocated a sober driver).

 

Russ students

Russ revelers are easily identified by their red overalls (other colours are used by vocational and business students) and jaunty red hats adorned with a string. Dares are an essential part of the russ culture. An object knotted in the string of a russ’ cap signals the completion of dares. Think scout badges, but for the drunk and disorderly. Dares range from running naked through the city centre in daylight to reading passionately from a porn magazine when a teacher asks a question in class.

Did I forget to mention that russ takes place a few weeks before finals exams? The ordering of events is somewhat perplexing. Or just ballsy. During the day, students swap their nocturnal mobile parties for school, prepped with vodka in their water bottles and a heavy-duty pair of sunglasses. 

From its roots in 1905, the 21st century has taken its toll on russ. Budgets are bigger, buses are more ostentatious and the alcohol is ever abundant. Russ can cost anything up to £6,000 and sees many students slaving at two or three jobs. It’s tradition at its most hedonistic. Norwegian businesses even buy into the hype with sponsorship deals for students and corporate logos plastered across party buses.    

Russ party bus

On Constitution Day, russ students join the day’s parades, bedraggled and sleep deprived. It’s tradition for each graduating student to give out russ cards to their friends - often lewd calling cards with their photo, name and motto. A PG version is usually given to family and children who collect the cards during the parade.

Two traditions walk side by side on May 17th. One, an evocative reminder of the past, of the struggle and celebration of independence. The other a hedonistic exercise in excess, modernity's answer to independence: yelled from atop a bus, beer can in hand. Somehow, polarities in Norway seamlessly coexist. 

With thanks to Eurolines. 




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