Today, July 29th, is St. Olaf’s Day. We’re talking St. Olaf the former king of Norway and one of the Catholic church’s saints – not St. Olaf the college or St. Olaf the fictitious home of Rose Nylund of The Golden Girls. It commemorates the death of King Olaf II on July 29, 1030. (It is spelled both Olaf and Olav.)
Olaf II Haraldsson was King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. He was posthumously given the title Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae (English: Eternal/Perpetual King of Norway) and canonised at Nidaros (Trondheim) by Bishop Grimkell, one year after his death in the Battle of Stiklestad on July 29, 1030. His remains were enshrined in Nidaros Cathedral, built over his burial site. His sainthood encouraged the widespread adoption of the Roman Catholic/Christian religion among the Vikings and Norse in Scandinavia. He became the topic of many folk legends.
Olaf’s canonization was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164, making him a universally recognized saint of the Roman Catholic Church, and a commemorated historical figure among some members of the Lutheran and Anglican Communions.
The saga of Olav Haraldsson and the legend of Olaf the Saint became central to a national identity. Olaf was a symbol of Norwegian independence and pride. Saint Olaf is symbolized by the axe in Norway’s coat of arms and Olsok (July 29) is still his day of celebration. Many Christian institutions with Scandinavian links as well as Norway’s Order of St. Olav are named after him.
The Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav (Norwegian: Den Kongelige Norske Sankt Olavs Orden; or Sanct Olafs Orden, the old Norwegian name) is a Norwegian order of chivalry instituted by King Oscar I on August 21, 1847 and named after St. Olav.
The Order of St. Olav is Norway’s only order of chivalry. The Grand Master of the order is the reigning monarch of Norway. It is used to reward individuals for remarkable accomplishments on behalf of the country and humanity. Since 1985, appointments to the order has only been conferred upon Norwegian citizens, though foreign heads of state and royalty may be appointed as a matter of courtesy.
Since the 900th anniversary of St. Olaf’s death (1930) Norway declared the date an official flag day. If you live in the Faroe Islands you get the day off work – they celebrate it with boat races, concerts and a procession of school children. In fact, Ólavsøka (literally “Saint Olaf’s Wake”) is the biggest summer festival in the Faroe Islands, and by most Faroese considered as the national holiday of the Faroes along with Flag Day on April 25. There are all sorts of outdoor activities including a gigantic chain dance:
The salute for Ólavsøka in Faroese is Góða ólavsøku! (Good Olaf’s Wake!).
If you like to hike, you can take the pilgrimage route called Saint Olav’s Way. It’s 640km (about 400 miles) and starts from ancient parts of Oslo and goes all the way north to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. The Pilgrim’s Route, (Pilegrimsleden) starts in the ancient part of Oslo and heads north along the lake Mjøsa, up the Gudbrandsdal valley, over the Dovrefjell mountains, and down the Oppdal and Gauldalen valleys to end at the Nidaros Cathedral. There is a Pilgrim’s Office in Oslo which can give you advice and directions . There’s another Pilgrim Centre in Trondheim which awards certificates to successful Pilgrims upon the completion of their journey.
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.
And, of course, we can’t have a post about St. Olaf without a St. Olaf story from our favorite Norwegian, Rose Nylund:
And here’s to the St. Olaf Woman of the Year: