By Evangeline Bryce
May 17 brings a spell of transformation over Norway’s usually quiet cobbled streets. Coloured streamers spill out of windows. Families toast strawberry-topped champagne glasses over breakfast, before donning embroidered dresses and suits that jangle with heavy silver jewellery. Marching bands tune their instruments, ready for a music-filled day. People gather in the hundreds and thousands in every city in Norway and even many beyond. May 17 is, of course, Norway’s Nasjonalsdagen – a celebration of their independence in 1814. For Cecilie Næss, even the many restrictions imposed by COVID-19 isn’t enough to dampen the spirit of the celebration.
On its surface, Nasjonalsdagen may seem like any other patriotic event. But it is rife with the unique Norwegian essence. In any normal year, huge parades of children – all waving the iconic red white and blue Scandinavian cross – swarm the cities and towns. Patriotic songs, sung loudly in the already melodic Norwegian language, fill the warm spring air. People dressed in bunad, the traditional Norwegian formal attire, twirl and laugh and sup together. Modern Norway shows its face most clearly here, in the diversity of people all united in their love for the land. It’s a festival defined by togetherness and delight.
Norwegian Club of Queensland President Cecilie Næss, 51, has been working hard to make sure that, despite tough restrictions, this May 17 is just as special as the ones from years gone by. “We’d have a big lunch buffet, there’d be speeches, we’d sing songs including the national anthem, and we have a Scandinavian choir that helps us along,” Cecilie says. She describes the club’s Brisbane-based celebration as a way to preserve her culture and share it with others. ““The 17th of May is the main event of the year for our club members.”
Having lived in Australia since 1999 and raised her two children here, Cecilie has developed a love for Australia. But first and foremost, she still sees herself as a Norwegian. It’s only in January of this year that Norway has allowed its citizens to be dual nationals. “I’ve just a couple of weeks ago sent in my citizenship application, but until now I’ve only had my Norwegian passport,” Cecilie says. The Stavanger native felt it was important to prioritise her Norwegian citizenship, both for ease of travel and sense of identity. “I didn’t want to give that up.”
But for Cecilie and the 26,000 other Australians with Norwegian ancestry, the two countries are more alike in spirit than many may expect. “I think the two cultures are very well aligned,” Cecilie says. “We’re both sort of casual, like being outdoors, but of course the climate is much better here.” She says many who come here to study or holiday do end up staying, for decades or for generations. She laughs about how many are drawn in by the warm weather, too. “It’s like being on summer holidays for us, all year round.”
As a result, a strong community bond among the Norwegians living here has flourished. The Norwegian Club of Queensland celebrated 50 years since its establishment just last year. Outside of the formal gatherings, Norwegians across Australia form groups on Facebook, have regular dinners, or meet to pass on their language to those interested in learning. It is a pearl of preserved culture, sewn into the diverse Australian tapestry.
For this year’s Nasjonalsdagen celebrations, says Cecilie, there will be a different tone. “We can’t really do very much at all since the limit on gatherings,” she says. Back in Norway, still in a modified lockdown, a celebration of sorts is underway. Norway’s national broadcasting service, NRK, has coordinated a live stream of the events still taking place. The country also plans to stand together to sing their anthem at 1pm local time, or 9pm AEST. Cecilie plans to take part and encourages all Norwegians here in Australia to do the same.
Despite the many changes, Cecilie still feels the same sense of belonging that May 17 always brings. There may not be parades, or large parties, or as much ice cream, but the spirit of Nasjonalsdagen still shines through. “It just makes you proud to be Norwegian.”