So let’s talk about the Russ. Who doesn’t love that?
Russ groups compete to have their school’s–and later their county’s–finest bus or russ car. These are old, large vehicles– purchased by each group prior to Constitution Day–that will be customized and used exclusively to transport the russ in the most hectic days in May. The cars are meticulously decorated, both inside and out, before their owners christen them. Many russ cars are eventually equipped with enormous light-and-sound rigs that turn the ancient vehicles into mobile discotheques. Russ warm up for their evening activities, hold parties, and move between events in these buses. Indeed, to really take part in the celebration, it is crucial to belong to a russ-car crew. “If you don’t belong to a bus, you’re nothing,” declared one girl, crew captain of the bus Catmobile. “In the bus is where it happens.” The somewhat derogatory term “subway russ” underlines the importance youth place on being attached to a vehicle.
Nowadays the russ celebration characteristically appears as an egalitarian rite of passage for all eighteen-year-olds, but this has not always been the situation. Russefeiring has its roots in an eighteenth-century academic tradition that marked students’ acceptance into university. In those days Norway belonged to a union with Denmark (1380–1814) and did not have its own university. Norwegian students had to journey to Copenhagen to receive their higher education.
To be accepted into university, the newcomers had to pass a special exam called the artium. Through this, they were obliged to prove their fitness for academic life. During their freshman period at university, students were referred to as russ. The word russ has no literal translation. It derives from an abbreviation of the Latin depositurus corpua. This term was used to signify that freshmen university students were leaving behind their old, animal-like ignorance and behavior. It was linked to a Danish university tradition that required freshman students to dress up in carnival costumes for their induction. At the end of the ceremony, the university deacon would anoint each student with a little wine on his head and salt on his tongue. In time, the russ began to develop their own rituals and traditions.
By the early nineteenth century, Norway was able to establish its own university. The Norwegians maintained the Danish form of university entrance examination. They also retained the accompanying rites of initiation by arranging russ parties. These were formal, exclusively male, events where the russ met socially with their professors. Russ parties became jovial occasions. Praise was offered to the freedom and vitality of youth, and toasts were drunk to science and Norway’s future prosperity.
Throughout the nineteenth century, only Norway’s upper- and middle class families could afford to give their sons an education. Accordingly, the russ celebration became a ceremony for a small and homogeneous group, the sons of a bourgeois elite. In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, this situation started to change. The russ celebration began to include both sexes and students from most layers of society, becoming a more egalitarian, democratic event.
These changes came partially as a result of reforms in the Norwegian education system. In 1883 the artium was redefined and changed from a university entry exam to the final examination administered in high school. This development effectively transferred the russ celebration one rung down the social and education ladder.
Changes in the celebration were also the result of the social- democratic educational policies of the twentieth century. In the last century, politicians tried to establish and maintain the right for all youth to receive higher education regardless of family, income level, or gender. This means that a high-school education, which was considered a financial burden in the 1920s, is now accessible to everybody. Indeed, it is looked upon as a near-obligatory form of basic education. This historic development has led to a considerable rise in the number of students celebrating their final days at school.
Dressed for a party in a worker’s suit.
During the twentieth century, the russ began to adopt distinctive items and symbols to communicate their special status to the rest of society. These gave the students a sense of their identity as a distinct group, clearly visible in the social environment. Among the novelties that developed was the uniform dress code, russ cars, and the use of various forms of equipment. These elements have become a vital part of the russ celebration. The display also took on some of the appearance and qualities of a performance or carnival.
Two characteristic items are red overalls and the russ hat. For more than twenty years, the brightly colored worker’s overalls have been the ritual costume of the russ. The choice symbolizes the process toward democratization that characterized Norway’s education sector in the twentieth century.
The worker’s outfit is worn by both genders. The conformity of the dress code contributes to the sense of the eradication of social inequalities. But the overalls also serve as a practical party costume. Before the russ can commence their revels, the overalls need to be decorated. A number of obligatory markers must be attached before the clothing can serve as a proper russ outfit. The year of graduation, the school emblem, the student’s proper name, and the name of the vehicle or crew to which the wearer belongs must all be written on the clothes. After the costume has been marked with these insignia, the decoration may continue. These additions are usually carried out with a black marker pen.
As the partying gathers momentum, customary greetings are written on the overalls. The russ wish each other a happy celebration. One of the girls I interviewed in Oslo had the following written on her outfit: “Hello Lis, enjoy yourself. At last we are russ! Best wishes from Monica.”
The comments may also report on the time and situation when the message is written: “Hello Lars! Now we are drunk,” declared one boy’s uniform. “I hope you are having a nice celebration! I love you. Best wishes, Brian.”
During the month that the revelry lasts, the overalls are covered with scribbling. The more the better, since the number of greetings you receive bears witness to your high activity level and numerous friends. Since the russ never wash their costumes during the celebrations, the greetings will remain on the fabric. The suit may then serve as testimony of the events they have attended and the friendships they have formed.
Although the russ seek to individualize themselves by decorating their suits, the fact remains that they all wear uniforms. Is there any concern about this loss of individuality? One boy from Oslo pointed out that the overalls created a strong sense of belonging to a community. “I feel it is similar to the army,” he said. “When everyone wears the same overalls, a new feeling of equality arises. You put on your costume and suddenly it doesn’t matter what kind of a person you are anymore. I think it’s a good tradition. Dressed up in their suits, everybody becomes a russ, and the russ just have fun together.”
But russ also emphasize other qualities that the uniform clothes impart. Many say that they feel a special kind of freedom: the freedom to behave in a way that would not normally be tolerated. “Ordinary people are of the opinion that russ are a bunch of hooligans, just because we wear this ritual costume,” commented one boy. “When people look at the russ in this way, then you actually get the feeling that you are allowed to do exactly as you please. People don’t expect anything else.”
The ritual tasks
Why then do people view the russ as troublemakers and pranksters? The answer will be found if we inspect the rather innocent-looking russ hat and the ritual tasks connected with it. The russ hat is the oldest piece of clothing associated with the celebration and can be traced back as far as 1905.
The hat has a long black piece of string attached to it, with a pom-pom at the end. As the russ parade through the streets on Constitution Day, the observer will notice that each hat has a number of objects tied to its string. These objects may be almost anything, from small toy cars to popsicle sticks, from condoms to beer caps. Despite their innocuous appearance, these items all have symbolic significance. Each object indicates that the russ wearing the hat has completed certain ritual tasks, tasks defined according to the so-called knot rules. There are nearly fifty such rules. The idea behind all of them is that the ritual tasks are supposed to challenge everyday social norms for acceptable conduct.
One example are the rules that encourage the russ to play in public. These can be exemplified by the following assignment: If the russ crawls around on the floor of a store, biting the legs of the customers as a dog might, he or she gains the right to tie a small bone to the hat string. Several of the dozen or so russ girls I interviewed in Oslo had completed this task on May 16. “We were having a barbecue on the beach,” one explained, “before we got thrown out by some people who didn’t want us to party in a public area.
“We went back to the bus and drove into Oslo, stopping only at a 7- Eleven. Everyone crawled into the store on all fours. All the russ fell on the only customer in the shop and started biting his leg. The poor guy immediately yelled, ‘Hey, that hurts! That’s enough!’ ”
Not all the tasks are aggressive in nature, however. It is often enough for the russ to make a display of some kind in public to get attention. A popular way of achieving this has been eating breakfast in traffic circles. The reward for partaking in such a meal is the right to tie a plastic spoon to the string of one’s hat. This odd show usually receives much attention among drivers. Pictures of russ peacefully having their breakfast in the middle of heavy traffic are not uncommon in Norwegian newspapers in May.
Other tasks are of a more bodily nature. The challenge here lies in pushing physical limits or proving one’s endurance. Such tests typically consist in eating huge amounts of food in a very short time, or drinking massive quantities of alcohol. Another knot rule says that a swim in the sea before the first of May gives you the right to tie a popsicle stick to your hat. Temperatures are not particularly inviting in the sea in April in Norway, so this is actually an act of daring.
Staying awake for one or several nights is another knot rule endurance test. The russ that manage to accomplish this feat can tie several knots in their hat string. This last knot rule was introduced in 1930. It the most ancient of the ritual tasks. The test is nevertheless among the most popular. Most russ considered it an obligatory challenge. One russ girl told me that at her last gathering she had stayed awake for an entire weekend: “I stayed up from Friday to Sunday. Actually it was a lot of fun. It became a kind of trip because I was so extremely tired and everything just became hilarious.”
Other physical challenges are closely associated with the use of alcohol, and certain amounts of it have to be consumed over a set period. The most common challenge is for the russ to drink twenty-four bottles of beer in twelve hours. If the russ accomplishes this, he wins the right to wear a beer cap in his hat. This knot rule is extremely important, especially among boys, who consider this the ultimate test of male prowess. As one russ said: “This task is a classic. It’s this rule that I always heard about when I was younger. I remember well how we admired the cool russ who consumed such large quantities of alcohol. When we finally got around to drinking these amounts ourselves, I must admit I felt somewhat childish.”
Turning their world upside down
This is only a small selection of the ritual stunts the russ usually take part in during their month of celebrating. These examples should nevertheless give sufficient proof of how the russ continually strive to turn their world upside down. The more absurd the tasks prescribed, the better. As long as the rules don’t go beyond what is legal, as many taboos as possible should be broken. Provocations, within certain limits, in front of representatives of law and order are rewarded.
The really odd thing about the knot rules is the apparent loyalty shown to them. Strict obedience to these rules is really what sets the russ celebration apart from all other occasions that include wild partying. Observing the rules becomes the big qualitative difference from normal youthful restlessness. “The rules are a vital part of the celebration,” one of the girls explained. “They make this something more than an ordinary experience. Here is where you find the key to all the weird behavior.”
Finally, however, when the russ parade has passed through the streets of Oslo and the russ have made their display in front of the citizens, the show is almost over. Only one last traditional act remains. This is the crowning of the statue of the recognized founder of the celebrations on Constitution Day: the poet Henrik Wergeland. He receives the biggest russ hat of the day. The president of the russ organization speaks, the russ all give their thanks, and the revels are ended. All that remains now for these graduating students is to go home, get to bed, and catch some sleep before sitting for their final exams. But even as the russ head home, the students who expect to graduate in the year to come are probably already starting to plan their anticipated celebrations. To them falls the task of surpassing their predecessors.