Sunshine and clear blue skies provided perfect conditions for the hundreds of thousands of people who filled the streets of the Norwegian capital on Saturday for the country’s bicentennial celebration on the 17th of May. Some clouds rolled in later in the day, but the important morning ceremonies and parties could unfold in a manner that was nothing short of spectacular.
Oslo’s main boulevard, Karl Johans Gate, was packed with people well before the annual parade featuring children and older students from all of Oslo’s schools. This year’s parade set a new record with 117 schools, and more students and their teachers marching in it than ever before. It lasted for nearly four hours, with the royal family staying in place on the palace balcony and patiently waving until the last school and royal guards had passed. Similar parades took place all over the country, just not as big.
Events started early, as usual, with choral music outside various churches from 7am followed by memorial ceremonies all over town, as wreaths were laid and speeches made at statues and monuments to a wide range of Norwegian heroes. The biggest gathering, in the national cemetery downtown known as Vår Frelsers (Our Saviours), seems to attract more people every year and this year must have set a record as well. The ceremonies organized by the City of Oslo feature music and tributes at the graves of authors Henrik Wergeland, known for advocating religious tolerance; Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who wrote the lyrics for Norway’s national anthem; and Henrik Ibsen, the noted playwright. Several other ceremonies are held on the graves of other historical figures from culture and politics.
Dalai Lama gone but not forgotten
This year’s speeches were more political than usual, perhaps because it was the 200th anniversary of Norway’s constitution that provided the foundation for Norway’s democracy and advocacy of human rights. Several speakers clearly felt that Norway’s government failed to follow its own principles when its ministers refused to meet with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Oslo last week, for fear of more negative reaction from China. Author Edvard Hoem and former Member of Parliament Theo Koritzinsky felt, for example, that both Bjørnson and Ibsen would have been disgusted, while Rebecca Ohana, representing Oslo’s Jødisk Ungdomsforening (Jewish youth association), stated that the government revealed it wasn’t as firm in its principles as it claims.
Ohana was the second speaker of the day at the grave of Wergeland, who was instrumental in getting a much earlier government, in 1851, to repeal at least the Jewish portion of an original clause in the constitution preventing Jews, Jesuits and monks from entering Norway. The official prohibition against Jesuits wasn’t repealed until 1956. Ohana was also the third speaker in a row to specifically refer to the public’s disappointment over the government’s refusal to meet the Dalai Lama, so even though he left the city last weekend, after a three-day stay, those attending the ceremonies were firmly reminded of his presence.
Politics aside, the setting was close to perfect as choirs sang the national anthem with birds joining in along with the public. Church bells rang from the nearby 800-year-old Gamle Aker Kirke and when crowds thinned, it was possible to admire the wreaths including one on Bjørnson’s grave from the Slovakian Embassy and the Norwegian-Slovakian association. In addition to being a Norwegian poet, editor and author who won the Nobel Prize for literature, Bjørnson took an active role in public debate and foreign affairs. While he was a national romanticist in Norway, he also championed causes abroad including a campaign in 1907-08 for the rights of the Slovakian minority in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There’s now a monument to Bjørnson in Bratislava, and Slovakians haven’t forgotten him.
Nor do Norwegians forget their resistance heroes from World War II, and this year many of the men who wrote Norway’s constitution in 1814 at Eidsvoll, north of Oslo, also got special tributes as they did all over the country. Through concerts, speeches and theatrical performances from Ås in the south to Tromsø in the north, the “Eidsvoll men” were remembered, while other bicentennial events on Saturday included a piano concert on a glacier in Hardanger and outdoor entertainment on a mountaintop in Dovre, to which the men at Eidsvoll famously referred.
Back in Oslo, the president of Norway’s Parliament who caught much of the criticism over his own refusal to meet the Dalai Lama, Olemic Thommessen, spent hours waving at the parade from the parliament’s outdoor balcony. The building itself has been richly decorated with red, white and blue flower and huge crowds massed below. The political controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama didn’t stop them from shouting hurra, and waving at Thommessen.
The tradition of having children’s parades on the country’s national day, instead of military parades and or other displays of power, dates back to Bjørnson’s time and is carried out in cities, towns and villages all over the country. In Tromsø and other communities in the north, it was cold and raining but that rarely if ever cancels the action. Parades in Oslo, Bergen and elsewhere in southern Norway enjoyed much better weather, creating demand for ice cream and drinks from sidewalk vendors.
While Thommessen and the royals kept waving from their respective posts at the parliament and the palace, canons roared at precisely noon from Oslo’s Akershus Fortress and Castle at the harbour. And as the parade wound down, the partying began, with restaurants open to welcome guests and thousands of private parties taking place at homes. The day was to be topped off with another official bicentennial celebration to be broadcast live from Eidsvoll Saturday night, at which not only the Norwegian royals would be present but also the king and queens of Sweden and Denmark. It would feature singers including Sissel Kyrkjebø and Ole Paus.