The Norwegian graduation celebration that bonds and divides students

Norwegian royal palace facade with the royal family on the balcony and graduating high schoolers walking and crawling on the ground in a parade dressed in red or blue "russ" outfits.

Like many other areas of life in Oslo, however, participation and spending are strongly influenced by the socioeconomics of the students and their parents.

It is hard to walk around Oslo in the spring without noticing the fleets of decorated party buses and throngs of high school students walking around in red coveralls.

These students, known as the "russ" after the red hats once worn to show they were ready to graduate, are participating in the peculiarly Norwegian tradition of "russetiden", the time of the "russ".

Although students participate in "russetiden" in some form across all of Norway, none of those celebrations compare to the massive events held in Oslo.

Students often begin planning their party group several years before graduation and can spend as much as one million NOK (about 86,000 Euro) on buses and other activities.

Failure to participate in the annual ritual can even lead to social exclusion.

This duality of bonding ritual and social exclusion is why OsloMet senior researcher Patrick Lie Andersen thinks it is important to understand "russetiden" better.

It is a large phenomenon with many positive aspects, but we also have to address its many potential problems and challenges. As a youth researcher, I think this is quite an important period in life for many young people. – Patrick Lie Andersen

Through his research, Andersen has found that students’ willingness and ability to participate in this celebration reflects the same geographic segregation that characterizes Oslo more broadly: students in the west, who grow up with more wealth and cultural capital, are more likely to participate in "russetiden" than those living in the east.

Evolution of a celebration

"Russetiden" dates back to 1811 when students celebrated their admission to the prestigious Royal Frederiks University (now the University of Oslo).

Their celebrations were based on similar rituals at universities across Europe at the time. In fact, the word "russ" is taken from the last part of the Latin name of those celebrations: cornua depositurus.

The tradition continued in this limited form of allowing new students to drink around town for nearly two centuries. In that time, it has evolved into a celebration of high school graduation, rather than university acceptance, and includes all high school graduates.

The modern version began to emerge in the 1980s as prosperity increased and cars and buses became popular accessories to the celebration.

It has now evolved into a massive, weeks-long event from mid-April to 17 May that involves extensive planning and hard partying.

Portrait of Patrick Lie Andersen.

NOVA researcher Patrick Lie Andersen Photo: StudioVest / OsloMet

Liberating attire

The most noticeable part of this celebration is the red coveralls worn by participants.

Different school tracks used to be represented by different colors, but today most students wear red, though a sizeable minority wear blue.

The outfit is more than just a fashion choice, though.

"Wearing it does something to your mindset. You can be allowed to party or do strange things; it is liberating," says Andersen.

Wearing the outfit symbolizes to the rest of society that the "russ" is participating in the celebration.

Friends sign the suit like a yearbook and a "russ" can earn patches and tassels to attach to their outfit by completing light-hearted challenges like spending the night in a roundabout.

In addition to the suits, many youths will spend substantial amounts of money purchasing a bus, investing in an expensive sound system, and hiring a driver.

Many "russ" also attend festivals and commission bespoke anthems for their groups. The planning and coordination for these events usually starts years before graduation.

Admission to the most desirable "russ" groups is hard-fought and at a premium, the OsloMet researcher explains.

The reward for participants in this springtime ritual is social inclusion and, in many cases, life-long friendships.

At the same time, Andersen cautions that there is quite a lot of peer pressure to spend large sums of money, especially at schools where many students come from more economically privileged areas.

Perception versus research

Many Norwegian parents see "russetiden" as not only an important social bonding activity, but as a period when young people can develop strong organizational skills, creativity, and entrepreneurial skills.

The Norwegian media dedicates extensive coverage to "russetiden" each spring, but as Andersen laments, often ignores what he sees as the positive aspects of the festivities and instead focuses solely on the aspects that worry parents: drugs and alcohol, dangerous activities, and sexual violence.

Many individuals in Norway, including Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, have grown tired of the current graduation celebrations and feel it has spiralled out of control, especially since it occurs before the final exams and may impact the students' exam results.

Støre has now tasked three government ministers with examining how to change "russetiden" so that it is less marked by exclusion, peer pressure, commercial forces, and less burdensome for the young. 

Despite all the attention – both positive and negative – that "russetiden" receives in Norway, not much is known about how Oslo’s youths themselves perceive the phenomenon and what drives their willingness to participate. 

Andersen, together with colleagues at Norwegian Social Research (NOVA), decided to make use of Oslo’s Ungdata survey.

Ungdata is NOVA’s national data collection scheme (, designed to conduct youth surveys at the municipal level in Norway.

The survey of Oslo’s youths has been going out every three years since 1996, and asks three important questions related to Andersen’s research:

"I expected to see the big differences between schools in rich and poor areas. What surprised me most was there were also clear differences in spending within the wealthy areas, between students that attend schools offering specializations in economics and business and those coming from schools that were more rich in cultural capital," says Andersen.

Economics, culture, and social structures

Andersen’s research into the Ungdata survey revealed significant socioeconomic distinctions in "russetiden" celebrations. Youth coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds have different attitudes towards the celebration and the amount of money they intend to spend.

Students from the western parts of Oslo, which are characterized by higher economic and cultural capital, are more interested in celebrating "russetiden" and are more likely to spend considerable sums on the festivities.

In contrast, students from neighborhoods in the east, home to a higher concentration of working-class and immigrant families, report a lower interest in celebrating and spending money on the rituals that accompany "russetiden".

"The long and the short of it is that you find the highest probability of wanting to celebrate "russetiden" among students belonging to the upper middle class and the highest socio-economic strata," Andersen says.

"If you come from more money", the researcher goes on, "then, perhaps unsurprisingly, you want to spend more money. Young people from middle class families possessing significant cultural rather than economic capital want to participate without spending that much money. And, finally, you have the lower middle class and the working-class students who more often say they do not want to celebrate and – even if they do – do not want to spend much money."

This east-west divide visible in Oslo teenagers’ relationship to "russetiden" is part of broader patterns of social inequality in the city according to Andersen.

He worries that because "russetiden" is such an important part of coming of age in Norway, not being able to participate because of class or cost may cause youth to feel like outsiders.

Implications for society

Andersen believes that "russetiden" should be seen as more than just a simple celebration.

In his view, while it has many positive aspects, this social ritual is a reflection and reinforcement of existing social inequalities in Norwegian society.

Acknowledging and understanding these social differences is vital to addressing the implications they have for the celebration and the different ways in which young people participate in it.

The ways that the adult population thinks about culture and our society’s ideals as they relate to consumption and lifestyle are reflected in "russetiden". – Patrick Lie Andersen


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A research article from:
Norwegian Social Research (NOVA)
Published: 25/03/2024
Last updated: 03/04/2024
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: Terje Pedersen / NTB and StudioVest / OsloMet