June 16, 2011
Norway has many traditions that some people would say sound pretty weird. If I were not a Norwegian, I might think so too.
One of these traditions takes place a month before graduating from high school and it is called ‘Russetiden’ or the Russ celebration.
The tradition dates to the early 1700s and we adopted it from Denmark.
The word “russ” actually comes from the Latin word, cornua depositurus, which means to “put off the horns”.
Before a Norwegian passes the final high school exam, a horn is put on the student’s forehead. A student who passes the exam is officially “a wise man”.
The Russ celebration is a major cultural phenomenon in Norway.
Apart from being a celebration of the imminent end of 13 years’ obligatory schooling, it has become a rite of passage into adulthood and a farewell to classmates.
These are the main reasons why the Russ celebration is such an important period in Norwegian students’ lives.
As time has passed, the tradition has changed a whole lot. Now the Russ celebration, which lasts about three weeks, is mainly about having fun with fellow students. This includes costumes, cars, games and alcohol with little schooling and little sleep.
Preparing for the Russ celebration starts a long time before these three weeks.
Students hear so much from previous Russ initiates that they want exactly the same festivities. That’s why some people start to plan years before the event.
The most important thing about the Russ celebration is the car. It is either a van or a bus; the student picks a theme and decorates both the outside and inside.
Nowadays it is not unlikely that some buses from Oslo are valued at more than $500,000. I mentioned it had changed a bit, didn’t I?
According to the tradition, the same pair of trousers are worn from the beginning until the end of the event. Also students cannot wash them, but fill them with stickers and write on them. And then they wait for the day it kicks off late in April.
The student’s chosen specialty at high school determines the colour to wear. The most common colours are red and blue to indicate a basic, widespread selection of study areas.
To mark the beginning of the Russ celebration, everyone gets baptized. Then there are three weeks of parties, concerts and small happenings every day such as collecting knots.
This is an activity to perform different tasks such as running through a schoolyard naked, “abducting” a freshman or kissing a police officer. The activities are represented by a knot or different items to knit in a hat, as many as one can collect.
Also thousands of Russ drive hundreds of miles to a gathering in one of the biggest cities in Norway to attend concerts and huge parties.
Many people are of the opinion that the Russ celebration is just a waste and generally a disturbance.
Teachers are not big fans because the celebration has destroyed rather a few students’ prospects of getting good grades.
Exams are held just after or even during the celebration. Yet school is the last thing on the young people’s minds throughout this time.
Fifteen years ago, Stephen Dobson moved from England to Norway. He was so fascinated with the tradition that he decided to dig deeper into it. Now he has a PhD in the Russ celebration.
“It is so weird, and so fascinating at the same time. You don’t really understand it before you actually see it for yourself,” Dr Dobson said.
Yet he now understands more of the meaning behind all the alcohol and partying.
“The Russ celebrations are an important rite of passage experience for Norwegian youths.
“It marks the end of something and at the same time the start of something new: the life after high school.
“For me, it’s fascinating to see how inclusive the celebration is. Nobody is excluded. That is a rare phenomenon but a very positive sign. We should all learn from that.”
CHANGES TO COME
The Russ celebration has experienced the most dramatic changes during the past 10 years.
It has become very expensive and might also interfere with young people’s studies.
Every year organisations and teachers protest against the celebration and want it to come to an end.
Dr Dobson, however, does not see it concluding.
“There will be changes, but it’s such an important rite for the students that for just that reason it will survive,” he explained.
“And that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s the school that has to make some changes so it will run smoother for their students.
“Putting exam dates in these three weeks, for example, is a stupid choice to make.
“I have, however, been concerned to answer a simple question: do the Russ celebrations have any educational value?
“My answer is that they are a source of informal learning, different from the formal learning of the classroom.
“The celebrations have their own curriculum; it’s not written, but verbally communicated and open to change between places in Norway.”