Culture

What’s up with this FLAG the Danes always are WAVING?

No occasion is better to understand the Danes’ fascination with their flag than at the Royal Family’s birthdays or an important football match. But what is so special about it?

By Stine Rosengren    Pictures: Hisham Ammar

Despite Danes not being very religious, the Danish flag is actually seen as God’s own banner, which came falling down from the sky.

The story of how it happened could go something like this:

The battle had been fierce, bodies lay spread out over the field, battered and bloody, and any hope of victory seemed lost. All of a sudden, the surviving soldiers heard thunder, the dark clouds scattered, letting a few rays of sunlight shine through.

They looked at the sky above them and saw a red flag with a white cross come floating down. It was as if God had decided to send a sign to the weary men below that all hope was not lost, and  that they should take the flag as a sign of God’s faith in them – enabling them to win.

Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen

The picture can be seen at Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, picture courtesy of the museum.

The year was 1219, and Danish King Valdemar II was leading an attack in Estonia; the aim being to conquer the Estonians and to Christianise them. The actual design of the flag, with the white cross on the red background, is identical with the brand used by the crusader knight order of the Johannites.

They later became the Maltese order and their white cross was no longer simple, but had notched tips.

However, in the 13th century, they wore red cloaks with a simple white cross. So much at least for the legend, and if it is true, it would mean that Dannebrog is the oldest national flag in the world.

The name is derived from old Danish and means the “cloth of the Danes”

Historians are not quite sure how to interpret the legend, and the date and year of the battle is also somewhat contested. However, it is believed that Dannebrog, or a red flag with a white cross in it, was most likely the banner used by the Danish crusaders, who in the beginning of the 13th century made efforts to Christianise Estonia.

Due to this battle, the official Dannebrog day is celebrated every year in Denmark on Valdemar’s Day 15 June.

In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a memorial sculpture in the Danish Garden commemorates the spot where it is believed the flag fell from the sky.

 

What we do know is that the flag is an important national symbol used by all Danes since the middle of the 19th century.

Up until the mid-1850’s only the King and State institutions, such as the military, were allowed to use it.

However, in 1854 the law preventing ordinary Danes from using the flag was lifted.

After the infamous war against the Germans in 1864, when Denmark  lost not only the war and territory to the Germans, but additionally and more importantly their feeling of being a global empire, Dannebrog became the symbol of national gathering.

Ordinary Danes began using the flag, not only on their Christmas tree but to celebrate all aspects of their own lives, weddings, and birthdays. In fact, for any celebration or festive event. And to this day, you will see the flag brought out and used for all important occasions in a Dane’s life.

Interestingly, at the same time it was forbidden to use national flags other than the Danish one. The only exceptions to that rule were (and still are) diplomatic envoys from foreign states and anyone who has obtained special permission to fly their national flag.

In 1915, the justice department even stated that any violation of such a rule would entail that the (foreign) flag be seized and only given back to the owner once the case against them had been deliberated upon!

The regulation regarding other national flags has since been amended (a bit) meaning that you are allowed to also fly the other Nordic states’ flags, the flag from Greenland and the Faroe Islands, as well as the UN and EU flag (not the individual member states, only the official institutional one) without seeking special permission to do so.

Police permission to flag your native one

You can still request permission to fly your national flag.

It will be granted by your local police and the law does emphasise that permission should be given for special events.

So there is an open-mindedness towards granting you permission to do so.

Be careful though, if you possess two flagpoles, you must flag Dannebrog next to your national one!

The text actually reads:

“Permission should be granted (to fly a foreign flag) – conditional to the flying of the Danish flag of at least the same size and on as good a placement- as the foreign one. This condition may be wavered should the applicant possess only one flagpole.”

Where to buy Dannebrog and other flags

One of Denmark’s oldest flag manufacturers Dahls Flagfabrik sells a multitude of paper flags, table flags and flags for flagpoles. Even though flags with Dannebrog are the most sold ones, they are experiencing a wider use of other flags.

Certainly when major events take place, such as the international Eurovision song contest (in Denmark known as Melodi Grand Prix), World Championships or European Championships. In addition, the American Stars and Stripes is sold for Thanksgiving or presidential elections, the Super bowl and so on.

“When Crown Prince Frederik married Mary Donaldson of Australia in 2004 we sold 10,000 Danish as well as 10,000 Australian flags to Wonderful Copenhagen, and we had many foreign (and Danish) journalists asking for information about the use of the Danish flag,” says Brian Nielsen from Dahls Flagfabrik.”

Should you venture to fly Dannebrog from your flagpole – be aware that there are a number of unwritten rules about how to do so and when to take it up and down.

In fact, in order to help spread knowledge and make sure it is done correctly, a special NGO, Danmarks Samfundet, (The Danish Society) was founded with HRH Prince Joachim as protector.

Their mission statement is to organise events on Valdemar’s day and to advise and give counsel, as to the correct use of Dannebrog, in any way possible to private and public institutions flying the Danish Flag.

During the autumn there are not that many official flag flying days – 5 September was one and the 25 December is another.

9. April Denmark’s occupation during the Second World War

14. April Langfredag (Easter)

16. April Queen Margrethe’s birthday

29. April HRH Princess Benedeikte ( Queen’s sister)

5.  May Denmark’s liberation after the Second World War

12. May Great Prayer Day

25. May Kristi Himmelfartsdag

26. May HRH Crown Prince Frederik

4. June Pinsedag

5. June Grundlovsdag

7. June HRH Prince Joachim

11. June HRH Prins Henrik

15. June Valdemarsdag and Genforeningsdagen 1920

Flag rules for Dannebrog

All public institutions must fly Dannebrog on the official flag flying days. You can check with Danmarks Samfundet, who issues a list of dates, or just look at your local bus. If it has a flag flying, you can be sure it’s for an official occasion for instance for members of the Royal family.

Private individuals or companies are under no obligation to fly it – though many do

The flag must never touch the ground when carrying it to and from the flagpole

The flag must be raised at sunrise (however never before 8:00) and must be lowered at sunset

What do Danes think of their flag?

We asked three Danes about their flag; what it means to them, if they know where it came from, and who else used the flag’s colours.

Lotte says:
For me Dannebrog has a symbolic value, and when I see it flying on bank holidays and other special occasions, it fills me with a more solemn feeling. Also, when I see it abroad, whatever the occasion, I feel connected to Denmark and it gives me a sense of belonging, a community feeling. I know it fell from the sky, somewhere, I don’t remember where. I don’t know who else used the flag.

Malene:
First of all parties and birthdays. And of course, my childhood memories of my father raising the flag on our birthdays in the big garden on the farm where I grew up. Or raising the flag on trips with my scout group, in the morning, taking turns, standing all together. Of course, it’s also a national symbol of unity, but first of all I see the birthday cake full of Danish flags when you ask me about it. I also think of Dannebrog as part of being Danish, and everything about our society that goes with that.

When talking to foreigners, I would mostly talk about our welfare model, if they ask me what I connect to being Danish and of course our nature, literature and music. There is a fine story about how Dannebrog fell from the sky in the 13th century, not quite the truth of course, but a good story. No, I don’t know, who else used it but I do remember a banner from the temple knight’s order that looks like it, but that is not red with a white cross, as I recall it.

Jens Jacob:
I think Dannebrog is a beautiful flag and it fills me with joy, warmth and a feeling of safety and security. I know it fell from the sky during a battle in the Baltic States, was it Lithuania? No, I don’t know who else used the banner.