Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Neighbors Have a Birthday

Springtime in Copenhagen is turning out to be a wonderful time to practice my ever-growing Danish vocabulary on the various crowds I seem to stumble across. Just the other day - May 17th to be exact - I was walking around my friend's neighborhood on Amager (a smaller island suburb of the city that I also happen to live on - think the Staten Island of Copenhagen) and I came across this:

Questions that instantly came to mind:
  • Why are all these Norwegians standing around this building where someone is giving a speech and a band is playing oompah music?
  • Why are a lot of them dressed up like they just got off of work from Norway's version of Colonial Williamsburg?
  • And more importantly, what's with all the beer?!?!

Now to attempt to answer as best an expat can. Thanks to some friendly Norwegians who kindly answered some of my questions (and let me photograph them in their finery), and the always helpful resource that is Wikipedia, I think I may be able to do it some justice.

Let's start with the day itself. Unbeknownst to me, Syttende mai which literally means May 17th, is Norway's national holiday. It's a day that celebrates the signing of their constitution, in which they officially declared their sovereignty from Sweden back in 1814. It has a similar significance to July 4th in the US but with some distinct differences:

  • Americans have no national dress and so you will never see a picture like the one on the right, which is a traditional Norwegian women's bunad. More on them later.
  • Norway's national holiday has evolved to focus on children, with childrens' parades taking place across the country and abroad. Ours focuses on blowing stuff up.
  • It is also an a-political, non-militaristic holiday. Like a pacifist version of July 4th. No fireworks. No elected leaders giving regurgitated propaganda speeches that no one ever pays attention to. In Norway, elected officials, including the prime minister, have no official duties related to this holiday. Instead they give thanks for their monarchy.
  • If you are disappointed in a lack of any similarities, rest assured. While nothing explodes on this holiday, many people get fabulously drunk, hence the enormous mountain of beer waiting to be consumed. 
Now for some interesting facts about the building itself. What I inadvertently stumbled across was Copenhagen's Norwegian Church Abroad, or Seaman's Church. It's a really amazing concept - it was founded in 1864 as a religious as well as cultural resource for Norwegians, and other Scandinavians, traveling or living abroad. They're community centers sponsored by the state church and government where homesick Norwegians can go to buy a newspaper, eat some rakfisk (fermented trout) and make some guttural throat sounds. They can be found in obvious places, like New York City, Paris, London and Singapore, but also in some surprising places, like Miami, Pattaya (Thailand) and one apiece on three of the four largest Canary Islands.

And finally, the clothing! They are called bunad, which broadly refers to both rural, historical Norwegian garments as well as modern folk costumes, as I saw on Syttende mai. They have always been used as proper formal attire but are becoming more and more common as celebratory dress, for example at weddings, festivals and other religious holidays. They are often elaborate affairs, with intricate embroidery, matching shawls and handmade silver or gold pins and jewelry. The women's costumes are generally more colorful, with the different patterns indicating a regional affiliation, much the same as a Scottish tartan.

So, from one expat to a whole bunch of others, "Tillykke med fødselsdagen Norge!"