“Yesterday, on the 17th of May, we Norwegians celebrated our constitution day to mark the signing of Norway’s constitution in 1814. Maybe it is because we are a small country: In Norway this is an important day. All over Norway children have paraded in their best clothes to the music of thousands of marching bands, and countless speeches have been made to remind each others, as fellow Norwegians, that freedom should never be taken for granted.”
– Andreas Heldal-Lund, Award Winner’s Speech, Leipzig Human Rights Award, 2003 Leipzig Human Rights Award of the European-American Citizens Committee for Human Rights and Religious Freedom in the USA, (May 18, 2003).
In contrast with the discussions last week, the focus this week is on a more decisively expressive side of nationalism – the celebration of national days. True to the flexible nature of nationalism, national day celebrations take in a huge variety of forms, differing from one nation to another. Many serve as celebrations of independence or acquisition of statehood, but it is not uncommon to find examples of the contrary. The case studies provided – the celebration of Norwegian and Russian national days, are part of the latter and very different from each other. Their origins, age, organization, perception and participation all contribute to establishing a day of celebration unique only to themselves.
(Image: Children’s parade on Karl Johans Gate in Oslo)
After being unified as a single kingdom between the 10th and 14th centuries, Norway entered into the Kalmar Union with Sweden and Denmark in 1397, and was annexed by Denmark in 1536. In 1814, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Treaty of Kiel granted Norway to Sweden, who had fought against Napoleon, from the defeated Denmark. This caused outrage in Norway, spurring on a nationalist movement that materialised within months, and culminated with the hasty signing of a distinct Norwegian Constitution on 17th May 1814 (Elgenius 2009: 107). After a brief and limited war, Norway was forced into a union with Sweden (Elgenius 2009), but was allowed to retain its own Constitution and parliament. In this context, public celebrations of the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution sprung up around Norway in the 1820s, identifying Norway as an independent nation and demonstrating resistance against Swedish dominance (Elgenius 2009: 107-108). The Swedish monarchy and parliament attempted to ban the celebrations, but to no avail; and by the 1840s the 17th of May was widely and popularly celebrated throughout the country (Elgenius 2009: 109).
At this point, however, the Constitution Day was far from a unified or homogenous celebration. Different socio-political groups organised separate parades, often organised by political parties, emphasising issues such as women’s suffrage and temperance (Elgenius 2009: 109; Blehr 1999: 177). As the struggle for independence intensified towards the end of the 19th century, however, the celebrations became more unified, and even conservative processions began to use Norwegian flags unmarked by the Union emblem in the corner (Elgenius 2009: 109; 2011: 402). The 1870s saw the introduction of a “boys’ flag parade”, which came to also include girls by 1889, thereby making children a focal point of the celebrations (Elgenius 2009: 111-113). The dissolution of the Union in 1905 brought a brief interlude of relative unity in the celebrations, before the class struggles of the 1920s and 1930s again gave the celebrations a clear political and divisive character (Elgenius 2009: 112). The Nazi occupation of 1940-1945 is commonly argued to have changed the nature of the Constitution Day by creating a strong sense of resistance, community and national solidarity, leading to its current form (Elgenius 2009: 112-113; Blehr 1999: 177). With the exception of some controversy surrounding the referendums on membership of the EC/EU in the 1970s and 1990s, the celebrations took on a strongly apolitical character from this point on (Blehr 1999: 177, 181).
(Image: The Norwegian Royal Family waving at the children’s parade from the balcony of the Royal Palace in Oslo)
Today, around 78 percent of the Norwegian population participates in some sort of celebration on Constitution Day (Elgenius 2009: 105). The Norwegian national day stands in stark contrast to most other national days in its form: where other states frequently celebrate their nation with military parades, the Norwegian Constitution Day is a purely civilian celebration, in which the schoolchildren’s parades are central (Blehr 1999: 175-176). Starting with church services and solemn commemorations at war memorials in the early morning, the celebrations take on a festive and joyous character for the rest of the day (Blehr 1999: 177). Parades are organised by schools and local committees consisting of representatives from civil society and local political parties, and high participation is secured through strongly encouraging – though not compelling – all schoolchildren to participate (Blehr 1999: 177-178). In the children’s parades, children march as representatives of their school rather than of their class or ethnicity; they wave Norwegian flags, often wear traditional folk dress (children of immigrants are allowed to wear the folk dress from their parents’ home country) (Blehr 1999: 178, 183-184), and sing the national anthem Ja vi elsker dette landet (Yes, we love this country) as well as the song Norge I rødt, hvitt og blått (Norway in red, white, and blue), a tribute to the Norwegian flag. Following the children’s parades are the citizens parades, which are informal in nature and in which people participate not as individuals but as representatives of one of the many civic associations that pervade Norwegian society – or, when they do not belong to any such association, simply as citizens (Blehr 1999: 179). The practice of parading as members of groups rather than as individuals “testifies to the importance of egalitarian ideals in Norwegian society” (Blehr 1999: 186). Associations representing political causes that are deemed to be in any way controversial – such as LGBT groups and atheist organisations – are excluded, usually by their own accord (Blehr 1999: 177, 183). Unlike the children’s parades, it is possible to participate as an ethnic group in the citizens’ parades, but such groups are rare even here (Blehr 1999: 183-184). Like the children’s parades, participants in the citizens’ parades often wear traditional folk dress – bunad – wave Norwegian flags, and sing the same anthems. In addition to the children’s and citizens’ parades, high school graduands also have their own, very informal processions, which are meant to be entertaining and often includes some somewhat controversial political statements – though it is implicitly accepted that highly controversial issues should be excluded even from these processions (Blehr 1999: 179). In all three types of parades, participants usually wear a red, white and blue silk ribbon on the left side of their chest, “over the heart – a symbolic link between the individual and the nation” (Elgenius 2009: 115). After the parades, the afternoon is spent in schoolyards where children play games and eat cake, ice cream and hot dogs while adults socialise with neighbours and acquaintances (Blehr 1999: 178).
(Image: The Norwegian Crown Prince and his family wearing traditional folk dress, bunad)
The celebration of the Norwegian Constitution Day on the 17th of May is widely considered to be unique: it is a widely celebrated joyous occasion, organised by civil society rather than the state as such, characterised by a strong sense of pride and (arguably strongly exaggerated) national unity, in which the (allegedly) harmless nature of Norwegian nationalism is demonstrated through peaceful children’s parades (Blehr 1999: 175). Moreover, and crucially, the celebrations are highly inclusive: although one might expect that the intense flaunting of national symbols and strong expressions of national romanticism would lead immigrants and foreigners to feel excluded from the celebrations, polls have in fact shown that immigrants feel more included on this day, and find Norwegians to be more pleasant and welcoming than usual. The Constitution Day thus constitutes a “low-threshold opening into the Norwegian national community” (Bjørnholt 2005: 9). This is perfectly in line with the state ideology of integration, but is a quite recent development as the parades used to be the exclusive domain of ethnic Norwegians only a few decades ago, when Swedish children were frequently excluded from the parades (Blehr 1999: 183; Bjørnholt 2005: 9).
The unique significance, scope, and form of the celebrations have been attributed to a number of factors. It is commonly asserted that the widespread use of the traditional folk dress, the bunad, can be “explained by a young nation’s need for national symbols” (Bjørnholt 2005: 2), and the same may be said for the widespread use of Norwegian flags and the singing of the national anthem, Ja vi elsker dette landet. Not only is the Norwegian nation a young one, but its nationhood has persistently proven to be vulnerable (Elgenius 2009: 115; 2011: 397), first through the enforced union with Sweden 1814-1905, then with the Nazi occupation 1940-1945, and – to some – by the debates over accession to the EC/EU in the 1970s and 1990s. Although Norway was briefly independent in 1814, the Norwegian national project and the Constitution Day were linked to a struggle for independence – a nation in search for statehood – for 91 years. A separate, yet equally important explanation is to be found in the ceremonial practice of the celebrations themselves: Since the introduction of the “boys’ flag parade” in the 1870s, high participation has been ensured through the strong encouragement of children’s participation in children’s parades, which has also served to introduce and replicate national sentiment from a young age and to give the celebrations the joyous and civilian character they have today (Engelius 2009: 113, 116; 2011: 411).
Russians have more than one day they celebrate as their National Days, or simply days in which they express their nationalism, “however, the official ND today is Russia Day [12 June] commemorating the declaration of Russian sovereignty and the beginning of the post-Soviet era in 1991. It was adopted in 2004 as a public holiday and is characterised by state celebrations (Elgenius, 2005: 171).” Yet to the Russians its the most misunderstood and vague national day amongst all other national celebrations. According to “Sociologists from the Levada Center polled 1,600 people on how they feel about this holiday. According to the poll, 44 percent of respondents thought that the holiday was called ‘Russian Independence Day’. Only 38 percent were aware that it is actually called ‘Russia Day’. One-fifth of respondents were unable to answer what entity Russia is independent from (Litovkin, 2014).”
Most people attend the various activities scheduled for the day that include; concerts by famous musicians, kids activities, or making their own plans of going with their families to the park or simply hang out in the pubs. Usually there are fireworks at night and an award ceremony. “The holiday is now also used as an opportunity to give state awards to prominent Russians who have made significant accomplishments in the past year – in the sciences, humanities, arts and humanitarian activities. These official award presentations are broadly televised and attended by some of Russia’s most prominent political figures. There is a President’s Address, also televised, in the evening (Makagonova, n.d.).”
Many attribute this confusion to the fact that it is a young holiday that has been recently founded, Elgenius (2005) explains: “In the case of Russia, Slovakia and Croatia, it has to be taken into account that the public national holidays have been established recently and a pattern for celebrations may have not yet been formed. The Russians themselves do not celebrate any of the days [Russia Day, the Day of the Fatherland or the National Unity Day] recently established by the state elites, who in the process have abolished the anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’ as a public holiday despite polls showing that the majority of Russians were in favour of keeping it. Victory Day [9 May], on the other hand, is still today a most popular national celebration in Russia (p.254).” It seems as though most of the efforts to celebrate this national day stems from the Government, while people just simply consider it to be just another day off!
Understanding Russian Holidays
In 20th century Russia, the development of calendar holiday culture was determined by the cultural transformations that occurred under the influence of socioeconomic upheavals and their negative consequences for demographic processes and the mobility of young generations of Russians. As a result, personality types and people’s consciousness changed, and their attitudes towards the family and its values changed. The numerical decrease in population and disruption of the mechanism by which ethnically significant information is transmitted led to a loss of it. (L.A. Tul’tseva p. 97)
With this contextualisation in mind, to truly understand the traditional Russian holiday one must be aware of the effort of organisers to maintain the astronomical/calendar cycle, which in our case coincide with the Orthodox calendar. These holidays are needed as much as ever. Being milestones in the change of natural seasons, they correspond to historically established economic and cultural types of life support and distinctive features of consciousness. Such holidays are more in demand by rural families, which, because of how they live, dependent on the natural world, have always had large families. The strategy of the current demographic policy should be focused on large families, particularly rural ones. It is large rural families that are the demographic resource that will help preserve the images and symbolic meanings of our ritual holiday heritage. (Ibid)
The question of recreating traditional models of ritual holiday culture, for the purpose not only of improving socio-cultural parameters but also interesting urban residents in their own ethno-cultural heritage, was settled in the 1970s and 80s. That was when celebrations of the native village, street and city received broad recognition. Festivals with folk crafts, folklore and ethnographic ritual presentations on club stages and on the sites of traditional outdoor gatherings became part of holiday leisure activities. (Ibid)
In recent decades, up to the present, such “mass culture” events have played an especially prominent role in maintaining a generalized version of the traditional layer of Russian culture. These festivals are inherently stylized in imitation of the old days, with a mixture of various regional ethnographic and folklore styles, and the reconstructed forms themselves are often only remotely reminiscent of their prototypes, which supposedly go back to ethnographic sources. This phenomenon of a “secondary quality” in the life of ethnically marked holidays is typical and reflects society’s attitude toward its heritage. (Ibid)
The 1990s will go down in Russian history as a decade of unprecedented emptying of villages and catastrophic increase of depopulation of traditionally Russian territories. It was exacerbated in 2010 by the environmental catastrophe that gripped European Russia. The ethnic culture of these oblasts was subjected to the latest survival test. It suffered an irrevocable loss with the passing of the older generation, who were often the last exponents of idiosyncratic dialects and their own ways of perceiving the surrounding world. Among them were the last keepers of sacred knowledge. As never before, the life of a holiday now depends on the population’s economic situation. If there is no work, there is no holiday. At the same time, much depends on the attitude that society and individual people have toward their own ethno-cultural heritage. (p.97)
The two examples illustrated above showed how national day celebrations can take different shapes, one particular contrast being the social positions held by those who precipitated these celebrations (Norwegian celebration came from bottom up compared to the Russian top down approach). However it is also important to consider what is not shown here – both examples were state sanctioned national days, but more often than not a nation celebrates together in more than one occasion. This is of particular relevance to us as this discussion is taking place in a state with no official national day. What does this say about the nature of nationalism in the United Kingdom? Does the official nature of a national day separate it from other national celebrations? Does state involvement give national days anymore credit? Going back to the two case studies, are there any particularly compelling reason that the these two national days are treated so differently? Are there any possible common ground to be drawn from national days across the world? Feel free to use your own state’s national day celebration as a point of reference.
- Thus, it is at this juncture that Russia Day materialises. But given this historical context for the formulation of holidays in Russia, was the rootless Russia Day ever going to succeed?
- In light of the obvious problems apparent since the 90s, has the current political situation and media spotlight on Russia provided a remedy?
- Will not participating in the celebrations of Russia day become a marker of who is pro-Putin and who is a potential threat to the nation?
Bjørnholt, M., 2005. ‘Hvorfor er folkedrakt så viktig i Norge og marginalt i nabolandene?’ Nordic Journal of Cultural Policy. 8 (2): 34-50
Blehr, B., 1999. ‘Sacred Unity, Sacred Similarity: Norwegian Constitution Day Parades’, Ethnology. 38 (2): 175-189
Elgenius, G., 2009. ‘Successful Nation-Building and Ceremonial Triumph: Constitution Day in Norway’. Chapter 8 in: D. McCrone and G. McPherson (eds), National Days: Constructing and Mobilising National Identity. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan
Elgenius, G., 2011. “The politics of recognition: symbols, nation building and rival nationalisms.” Nations & Nationalism 17, no. 2: 396-418.
Elgenius, G., 2005. Expressions of Nationhood: National Symbols and Ceremonies in Contemporary Europe. PhD. University of London.
Frolova, A., 2013. Modern Holiday Calendar of the Russians
L.A. Tul’tseva, 2012. Russian Holidays and Demography in the 20th and early 21st Centuries.
Litovkin, N., 2014. Russia Day: The country’s most misunderstood day off. Russia Beyond the Headlines [Online] Available from: http://rbth.co.uk/society/2014/06/12/russia_day_the_countrys_most_misunderstood_day_off_37427.html Retrieved 3 March, 2015.
Makagonova, V., (n.d.) Russia Day – June 12 Independence Day in Russia. [Online] Available from: http://gorussia.about.com/od/russia_events_and_festivals/ss/Russia-Day.htm Retrieved 3 March, 2015.
Norris, S.M., 2011. Memory for Sale: Victory Day 2010 and Russian remembrance.
Sprouting Spring Celebrations. March/April 2015.
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