Written by Catherine Burke
While many nationalities, such as Americans, are known for harboring an obsession with their country’s flag, few flags’ significance in daily life compares to that of the Dannebrog. The Dannebrog, which is the term used in Denmark to refer to the national flag, literally translating to “cloth of the Danes,” plays a central role in both public and personal life in Denmark by unifying people around their shared Danish identity. Occupying a mythic position within Danish history, the Dannebrog is said to have fallen from the sky into the arms of the Danish King Valdemar II as he faced defeat during the 1219 Battle of Lyndanisse in Estonia. According to legend, when the Danish archbishop Anders Sunesen raised his arms towards the sky, imploring God for help, Denmark began to gain ground in the battle. The second time Sunesen prayed for assistance, God allegedly sent a red banner with a white cross down to earth from the sky, which was caught by King Valdemar II, empowering him to win the fight, as well as defeat the pagans. The myth of the Dannebrog is central to Danish society and national consciousness. Children are often taught the legend at home and it was long included in school textbooks. In addition to the legitimacy granted by its purported historic and religious origins, the Dannebrog is also widely believed to be the oldest national flag used today, as it officially became the Danish flag in the middle of the 14th century. This heritage contributes to its importance and serves as a point of pride for the Danish people.
In contemporary Danish society, the Dannebrog is a central aspect of culture, commonly used for social, political, and commercial purposes. Upon entering any grocery store in Denmark, you are sure to find a variety of items printed with the Dannebrog, ranging from bunting to napkins. The Dannebrog is commonly found in decorations on birthdays, when it is used in table settings, placed on cakes, and printed on birthday cards. Similarly, it is also used to decorate Christmas trees and is often displayed in homes. Logos for different groups, such as bands, also frequently incorporate the Dannebrog and shops will display it to signify a sale. More traditionally, the Dannebrog plays an important role during national holidays and the Danish government recognizes a host of ‘flag days’ during which public establishments are required to put up the flag. Most significantly, June 15th in Denmark marks Valdemar’s Day, an official flag day and public holiday celebrating the history of the Dannebrog and the “Danishness” and unity it represents. On Valdemar’s Day, volunteers across Denmark sell small Dannebrog flags in order to raise money for large-scale Dannebrog flags and banners to be presented to different organizations, highlighting the symbolic importance of the flag. The inclusion of the Dannebrog in personal and recreational settings in Denmark demonstrates how individual occasions of joy and accomplishment are commemorated in part through expressions of national pride. As a result, Danish nationalism grows from within individuals and family units, expanding outwards into organizations and wider society.
While the Dannebrog is invoked for a variety of different occasions and purposes, both official and casual, specific rules do govern its use. For example, the government maintains that the private use of foreign national flags is forbidden, with the exception of other Nordic flags, unless permission is granted in advance by the police. Furthermore, the Flag Code dictates that if a foreign national flag is flown on a public building, a Dannebrog of equivalent size must be displayed next to it, given the superior position, and raised first. There is even a society in Denmark, Danmarks-Samfundet, dedicated to educating people about the history of the Dannebrog and providing guidance for its use. Danmarks-Samfundet was established in 1908with the specific aim of strengthening Danish nationalism, largely through enshrining the Dannebrog as a mythic symbol of national unity.
By normalizing the use of the Dannebrog in personal celebrations, such as birthdays and graduations, as well as public ones, Danish nationalism is imbued with a sense of festivity and positivity. Furthermore, merging the political and the personal promotes a subconscious belief that individual milestones and triumphs are also those of the nation and vice versa. Therefore, the everyday use of the Dannebrog in people’s personal lives, in addition to public functions, fosters both national pride and belonging. Through establishing this positive association with the flag, the widespread use and display of the Dannebrog avoids the perceptions of aggression or threat that might accompany excessive use of the national flag in other countries, such as the U.S., for example. In addition, the myriad ways in which the Dannebrog is used enables Danish citizens to engage with and express national pride in unique and individualized forms that further the development of organic nationalism.
Featured Imagery: 800 years of Dannebrog.