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The Dannebrog and flag worship in Denmark

Photographs: Heather Storgaard

Text: Heather Storgaard

You don’t have to have been in Denmark for long to notice the ubiquitous flag flying everywhere. Named the Dannebrog, the red and white Nordic cross is (according to most Danes) the oldest flag in the world, one of the few with its own name and a non-nationalistic expression of Danish identity. How much of that is true? And how did the flag become such a part of everyday life?

The Danish flag was revealed to the Danes in the thirteenth-century Battle of Lyndanisse in Tallinn, Estonia. This occurred during the Crusades when Danish troops fought to convert the local pagans to Christianity. The Danes were losing but were saved by the Dannebrog falling from the sky. If you are ever in the Estonian capital, there are several statues and monuments to the mythical origin story at the castle, where you can often find Danish tourists snapping pictures.

When I was first told this story and the fun facts about the flag, I thought I was being teased. You see, the Scottish and Danish flags shared almost identical origin stories: ours came from the sky in battle as the Scottish Picts were about to lose against the Anglo-Saxon English. The Saltire also has a name and is claimed to be even older than the Dannebrog. However, now I’ve read a bit more about it, it turns out that one of the first regular users of the Scottish Saltire was a Scottish Queen, none other than Margaret of Denmark. With such close links between European royal families, it perhaps isn’t so odd that some stories have been transferred backwards and forwards until no one knows who told them first.

Despite the considerable age of the Dannebrog, the ubiquitous nature of the flag wasn’t always as we know it today. Before the 19th century, the permitted uses of the Dannebrog were minimal and ordinary people were not allowed to fly it. This changed with the advent of romanticism when many European countries looked back to their pasts for inspiration in art and culture. Not coincidentally, the Danes were in conflict with their German neighbours for much of that century, prompting a re-think of all things German in origin. And what better symbol for Denmark than the holy flag, the oldest in the world? Thus began the tradition of using the Dannebrog for general celebration and to show unity as a nation.

"The Dannebrog is flown on certain days of the year to celebrate pretty much anything."

Today, the Danish flag is everywhere in a way that stands out even among other flag-mad Nordic nations. The Dannebrog is flown on certain days of the year to celebrate pretty much anything (this year, we get an extra day, 15th October), is used to celebrate birthdays, graduations, births, weddings, christenings and more, is a welcome sign at airports and flown outside nearly every house in the countryside. In fact, flying any non-Nordic flag without special permission was considered illegal for over 100 years, with critics pointing out that Denmark’s rules were stricter than even some authoritarian states. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court was asked to decide on the rule after a Dane was taken to court for flying the US flag simply because he was a big fan of the nation! Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided against the guidance of the Danish Flag Society and proclaimed that any flag, other than those of Denmark’s enemies, could be flown freely. Among internationals, using the Danish flag alongside our own has become a famous symbol of mixed culture and appreciation for our adopted country. I was recently at a wedding where the Danish and Peruvian flags decorated a Kransekage (Danish wedding cake) side by side, a lovely symbol of the bride and groom’s international relationship. From now on, we can enjoy this on flag poles, too!

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