On May 17th, 1814, Norway decided it was time to regain its independence for the first time since 1397. Christian Fredrik was elected king, and a constitution was assembled. Sweden, Norway’s ruling power, was not amused, and in August, the short flirtation with sovereignty was forcefully thwarted. Norway would not become an independent nation until 1905.
Yet, the dominoes had started falling, and in 1836, Norway began observing May 17th as its Constitution Day. One of the mainstays of the celebration is the Russ. Based on a Danish tradition, the Russ are high-school students marking their graduation year, the peak bash happening during the May 17th festivities.
The modern Russ celebration began in 1905. Graduates would don red caps and carry bamboo sticks with ribbons in dedicated Russ parades. An innocent tradition, but one that would soon nosedive into a prolonged celebration of debauchery.
A Post-War Blowout
Changes came in the late forties when the Russ issued themselves a set of challenges: Sing a song in public, kiss a police officer—that sort of thing. If completed successfully, they would receive knots in their hats’ tassels.
As the years passed, the challenges would evolve—or devolve—into everything from dangerous to illegal stunts. Large intakes of alcohol became increasingly common, and kidnapping is now a prevalent prank. The latter, while often innocent, has resulted in several violent encounters over the years.
Still, the majority of the shenanigans are relatively benign. During my Russ period, we didn’t go further than the traditional soaking of middle-schoolers with water guns. The police showed up, but when a drenched teacher caught in the crossfire tried to complain, he was told we weren’t breaking any laws. The cops barely managed to keep their faces straight.
(We did “kidnap” a friend’s brother, though he was the one who insisted we take him away from school.)
During the fifties, “Russ cars” became a regular sight. Students would get together and buy old vehicles, paint them red or blue, and drive them in parades.
As the Russ celebration prolonged from days to weeks to months, larger vans—and, later, busses—became the preferred means to get to parties and gatherings. Norway’s legal drinking age is eighteen, so single vehicles with pools of students made it easier to find designated drivers.
Increasingly, the vans became less junky and more expensive, and funding them through painted-on advertisements became the norm.
Our VW camper was British, meaning it had a right-side steering wheel. On the left, we installed a non-functional wheel, and the car enthusiast of the group would pretend to be driving while drinking a beer. Needless to say, we got pulled over by an officer who, to his eternal credit, found the prank hilarious.
In recent years, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on bus rentals has become commonplace. That the rental companies often are shady hasn’t put a stopper to it: There are plenty of stories of groups being pressured into paying repair costs for lemons they were scammed into renting.
I don’t know when Russ cards became a thing, but this type of personalized “business card” is ubiquitous. Typically, it will include name, (fake) address, and (fake) phone number. A “motto” is usually plastered onto the bottom.
There is no particularly good reason for these cards to exist, but elementary school kids collect them feverishly. Having the largest collection is a major status symbol during April and May.
An Attempted Death Knell
Toward the late nineties, a coalition of educators tried to illegalize the Russ concept. It didn’t take, but I can see where they were coming from. While most students cruise through the Russ period, there are those who use it as an excuse to flunk out of school. Would they have made it had it not been for the Russ celebration? My high-school principal, who led the coalition, very much believed so.
Here in 2022, there are no indications that the Russ is going anywhere. It has grown into too big of a business for that. Plus, it is a tradition that has been around since Norway regained its independence. Maybe not a classy tradition, but a tradition nonetheless.
“17. mai (grunnlovsdag).” Wikipedia. Updated May 16, 2022. no.wikipedia.org/wiki/17._mai_(grunnlovsdag)
“Russefairing.” Wikipedia. Updated May 16, 2022. no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russefeiring
Letter to The Editor
I am concerned about the editorial standards at The Awesomeness Digest. Caramel sauce is, indeed, awesome. But the latest edition claims to offer a version that is “no-nonsense” and goes “well” with “banana cake.” Bananas are, however, nonsense. Nothing can go well them, and they are very NOT awesome. They don’t belong in a publication for those discriminating tastes. Please do better in the future.
Signed, A Concerned & Nauseated Reader
Dear A Concerned & Nauseated Reader,
While the editorial staff at The Awesomeness Digest empathizes with your concerns, we are convinced the chocolate-forward banana cake will surprise even the most hardened of banana skeptics. The banana acts mainly as a binding agent, and the cinnamon and vanilla offset its flavors well.