Olsok: a Nordic celebration across beliefs and borders

Days of national celebration are a mixed bag in Norway. The biggest one is their Independence Day, taking place on the 17th of May. This marks Norway’s independence from Danish coalition that began in the 16th century, lasting until 1814. And that only ended because of some bad trade agreements and, consequentially, the Napoleonic war.

Otherwise the dissolution of their union with Sweden (taken up more or less immediately after breaking with Denmark) in 1905 is humbly marked on the 7th of June. Norway is also quite adamant about Labour Day, particularly after WWII and later on; the explosive budding oil industry (1969), social solidarity and union power became key political principles. Beyond that, the odd royal wedding and an obsession with Christmas culture that could challenge Germany’s, Norwegians are a quiet bunch.

Olsok:

There is however a notable festive oddity, namely Olsok. Every year on the 29th of July, Olsok commemorates the death of one of Norway’s oldest historical, political and religious figures:  King Olav Haraldsson. He was canonised a year after his death in 1030. Olav reigned in Norway during the beginning of the 11th century and his policies played a large role in the growing Christian culture of Norway at the time. He died at the legendary battle of Stiklestad, a tale told and re-told by generations of bards, most notably the acclaimed Snorre Sturlason (1178/79 – 1241). Norway hasn’t been a particularly militant country since the Vikings’ reign during the Iron Age, and commemorating a battle is a rarity. Olsok makes an exception due to Olav’s undeniably radical impact on the political and social history of Scandinavia.

Olav at the battle of Stiklestad (source)

Olsok’s popularity as a festivity had a rise in the late 19th and early 20th century, in part as a result of our dissolution with Sweden in 1905. This marked Norway’s first reign of ‘absolute’ political independence in over half a millennium. Olav’s political, religious and historical influence, as well as his mythical qualities made him a natural celebratory icon of this independence.

Ólavsøka and the Faroe Islands:

Olav’s legacy serves a similar purpose on the Faroe Islands; the same date marks Ólavsøka – the national independence day of the Færoyar. The islands are located fairly evenly between Norway and Iceland, not far from the northern coast of Scotland.

After its involvement in WWII, The Faroe Islands began exercising an exponentially increasing political independence, while remaining a sovereign Danish state. Ólavsøka is celebrated on the islands from the 28th of July until 31st: it includes parades, communal sports activities and competitions, and concerts, to name a few festivities. The traditional Faroese ring dance is particularly prominent.

Olav’s remains are somewhere under Nidarosdomen, one of Norway’s most distinguished cathedrals, located in Trondheim. As a religious, political and historical monument, Nidarosdomen is a fitting place of rest for Olav. His legacy heavily informed Scandinavian history; from the development of the various Nordic unions to the growth of institutionalised religious society and the political relations of monarchy, church and parliament. People all over the world are commemorating Olsok today, be it by raising a flag or a drink – we’re brought together to celebrate a unique piece of Nordic history and be grateful for all that has come of it.

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