When you came to live in Denmark, the chances are you arrived by air and so, like me, were greeted by a sea of red and white flags. From the oversized to the tiny, no Dane meeting a loved one at Copenhagen Airport would feel right about the occasion without a flag in hand, even if they had only been to Aalborg for a night.
It’s like the ‘Dan’-everything thing. You know: Danbillet, Dantaxi, Danherpes (OK, I made the last one up). The ‘Dan’ prefix and the flag are everywhere.
So why is the Danish flag so ubiquitous? To get an academic and an expat perspective, I put the question to Dr Gary Schaub, a lecturer in politics at the University of Copenhagen who is originally from the US.
“In Denmark it seems that flags are a symbol of Danish identity but one that goes beyond the state. It’s about culture,” he said. “It’s different in the US where the flag is a symbol of pledged unity to the idea of the United States. The Danish attachment is to an expression of group identity.”
We mused together over whether the association of the flag with birthdays celebrates the survival of a member of the ‘Dantribe’ for another year. Perhaps belonging to the group improves survival chances, making the flag represent an evolutionary advantage? Maybe we were just over-analysing things.
“I really don’t get flags for sales in shops,” Schaub said, “I mean, birthdays are fair enough, but why Netto?”
“And why buses?” I added sagely.
The first time I saw little flags on the front of the buses in Copenhagen coincided with me receiving an email from my daughter’s school telling me it was national Lusedag. Speaking no Danish at the time, I briefly wondered if there was a connection. Thankfully I found out it was head lice eradication day at the school before I wished anyone a Happy Lusedag.
I do feel slightly inadequate, having never had much in the way of feelings for the Union Flag. Admittedly it’s been a flag-waving year in the UK, with the Olympics and the queen’s Jubilee. But aside from that, we don’t wave it all that much. It seems to have been cropping up in fashion and interiors more recently, but that’s just a passing phase. I don’t know anyone with a flagpole, and it certainly would be unlikely to feature on a birthday cake.
Odd then, that when going to the airport to meet family I found myself seized by the desire to wave a flag too. Unfortunately all I could find at home was a pair of Union Flag oven gloves in less than perfect condition, so I paid a visit to Dahl’s Flagfabrik at Nørreport. There in the midst of a dizzying variety of flags of the world and helpful posters about how to choose the right flagpole for you, I had a chat with Brian Nielsen, who took me through Danish Flag 101.
Known as the Dannebrog, it’s the oldest flag still in use by an independent nation, having allegedly fallen from the sky during the battle of Valdemar (also Lyndanisse) in Estonia in 1219. There are all the usual rules other flags also have about not letting it touch the ground and folding it properly. Nielsen also told me it’s forbidden to fly the Dannebrog after nightfall, unless it’s illuminated, and you can’t fly any other flag from a pole.
“There are no flag police,” Nielsen added reassuringly. “There are regulations, but it’s not law.”
And why is the flag everywhere?
“We’re a proud little nation,” Nielsen said.
Having the flag everywhere strips it of some of its gravitas. In some places flags are so laden with symbolism they cause riots. In Denmark they’re in the corner shop. And yet, rumour has it, when the Mohammed Cartoon Crisis was taking place and the Dannebrog was being burned in various countries, people here were actually upset.
Perhaps it’s a sign of Danification that even I felt a brief pang of shock one day, walking down Nyhavn early in the morning. To the side of the pavement a dog had done what doggies do and someone had put four little cocktail stick flags on the crest of each turd. Who knows, maybe it was Dandog’s birthday?