Norway fetes national holiday corona-style

Oslo (AFP) –


Bands playing to no audience, kids' parades cancelled for the first time since the war, the national anthem belted out from balconies: Norway's national holiday is normally a festive celebration, but on Sunday it was feted in small groups and online due to the pandemic.

After centuries under Danish and Swedish control, Norway normally bathes in a sea of red-white-and-blue flags on May 17, the anniversary of the signing of its constitution in 1814 -- decades before full independence in 1905.

Children typically take to the streets in parades across the country, ice creams and hot dogs are devoured, and the day culminates in a huge parade in "bunad", a traditional heavy woollen costume, outside the royal palace in Oslo.

There was none of that this year.

Without the usual masses gathered on the esplanade by the palace, King Harald and his family greeted their subjects from the balcony, waving to television cameras.

Karl Johans avenue, the main artery normally overflowing with flag-waving revellers, was deserted.

Because of the new coronavirus epidemic, parades are banned and gatherings limited to 50 people.

In Baerum, a residential suburb of Oslo, the Evje school marching band played for the hospital and retirement homes, in front of small crowds respecting strict social distancing rules.

"It was a bit strange, but fun," said Kaja Wang Andreassen who, aged 10, was making her debut on the flute.

"We had to be even more careful than usual to stay in line and stay far apart from each other, even when the road got narrower."

With help from an ingenious father, the families of the young musicians were able to watch the show from home, via a webcam attached to the flagpole carried at the front of the line.

"A lot of people saw us, even if we didn't see a lot of people," laughed Kaja.

- So far, yet so close -

A steadfast tradition since it was introduced by novelist Bjornstjerne Bjornson in 1870, this was the first time in peacetime that the children's parades were cancelled.

In several coastal towns, the parades were replaced this year by flotillas of hundreds of boats on the water.

"We will remember today as a very special day," wrote Christine Ronnefeldt in Sunday's main daily Aftenposten.

"We will remember this as the day we stayed so far away from one another, yet closer than ever," the 19-year-old wrote.

At one pm sharp, Norwegians were invited to sing the national anthem "Ja, vi elsker" ("Yes, we love") from their windows, balconies or gardens.

"So loud that you'll be heard at the palace esplanade -- without going there," Health Minister Bent Hoie had said.

- 'Terminator' to the rescue -

To help boost morale, Prime Minister Erna Solberg called in an unexpected reinforcement: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In a clip posted on her Facebook page, the "Terminator", donning a black cowboy hat, made plays on his famed "I'll be back" one-liner to send a message of hope to Norwegians -- in a mix of Norwegian, English and Spanish.

"The children's parades will be back, sack races will be back, May 17 celebrations will be back, everything will be back... but make sure to wash your hands every day over and over and over again and do the social distancing," he said, before adding: "Hasta la vista".

Solberg had posted a video of her and her cabinet dancing to a more-or-less rehearsed choreography, illustrating how to maintain distances on May 17.

"We're making fools of ourselves a bit," Solberg told broadcaster NRK. "That way, people can laugh at us, and that's a good thing."

Norway has every reason to celebrate, after proclaiming the coronavirus epidemic has been under control for several weeks now.

With a population of 5.4 million, some 8,200 cases of the illness have been confirmed, and 232 deaths.