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Why do Danes love the Danish flag so much?

Danes have a love for their flag bordering on obsession — not only is it a symbol of patriotism for national holidays and football games, the Dannebrog is also the default theme for birthday parties (yes, even for children) and is a staple for celebrations of any sort.

Why do Danes love the Danish flag so much?
A spectator holds a Danish flag during the match between Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark and Elise Mertens of Belgium. REUTERS/David Gray

Most Danish households have a small arsenal of flags in various sizes to suit all of life’s most Danish occasions, and there’s a year-round section of Dannebrog party supplies in most grocery stores. Don’t forget the Dannebrog garlands for your Christmas tree, either.

But how did the Danish flag develop this cult-like devotion? (Other than apocryphally falling from the sky in 1219, of course.) According to Torben Kjersgaard Nielsen, an historian at Aalborg University and author of a book on the Danish flag, the Dannebrog was strictly a symbol of royalty and the military through the 18th century. But in 1801, celebrated actor H.C. Knudsen stirred up patriotic sentiment with performances of songs and poems honouring Denmark, always staged in front of a Dannebrog.

“From then on, the flag grew to become a popular flag, pointing to allegiance to the kingdom (fatherland) rather than the monarch himself,” Kjersgaard Nielsen told The Local. Golden Age poetry praising Denmark’s ancient heritage natural beauty further swelled national pride, to the Dannebrog’s benefit.

READ MORE: Denmark’s Dannebrog ‘fell from sky’ 800 years ago today 

A child counts the number of Danish flags on a cake to see how old the birthday girl is. Photo: Lars Plougmann/Flickr.

By the 1830s, Danes were flying the Dannebrog so much it became a source of concern for the autocrat king Frederik VI—“flags were at his time starting to be used as markers and symbols of independence and democracy” as in France’s July Revolution, Kjersgaard Nielsen explained. In 1833, Frederik VI forbade private use of the Dannebrog over the government’s objections.

But even the king couldn’t keep the Dannebrog down. “The popular use of the Dannebrog surged during the war with Schleswig-Holstein in 1848-50 and the personal uses may have developed from there,” Kjersgaard Nielsen said. “It was used hanging as a garland on Christmas trees (German tradition, in fact), and it was used to celebrate happy events, weddings, anniversaries and probably also birthdays.” After it became impossible to enforce, the ban was lifted in 1853 and Danes have proudly hoisted the flag at every opportunity since.

Today, the flag represents joy and celebration as well as a love for country, Kjersgaard Nielsen said. “There is a debate going on in Denmark – and it has for a long time now – where some people argue that the flag is xenophobic and overly nationalistic; others – the majority – seem to understand that this is just one of the manifold uses of the flag and that waving the flag does not mean supporting right wing policies.”

READ MORE: Danish policies ‘fuel fear and xenophobia’: UN 

Last month, you likely saw the Dannebrog plastered on studenterkørsel—the party buses ferrying tipsy gymnasium graduates from house to house—and on storefront windows advertising sales. It’s never too early to start collecting for next year’s Flag Day, or Dannebrogsdag, on June 15th.

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For members


Why are many Danes so comfortable with nudity?

From naked communal showers at the swimming pool, to nude running races and topless sunbathing; Denmark is a country where nudity is commonplace. We take a look at why.

Why are many Danes so comfortable with nudity?

One of the most noticeable cultural features of Denmark is at the swimming pool. If you try and enter the pool while looking dry, you will get called up by a pool attendant and told you must shower. And by the way, that’s without your costume on.

To those not accustomed to communal naked showering, it can feel very odd. But to Danish people, it is merely functional.

“I definitely think we are aware there is a cultural difference in Denmark,” Danish psychotherapist Nina Reventlow told The Local.

“We get it from what the Germans call “freikörperkultur“, which means the free body culture. It comes from a health culture long ago that we adapted from the Germans around the 1940s. Then in the 1970s, it became more free-spirited. We are aware that the Danes and Germans have a special culture around this,” Reventlow said.

Denmark has no laws prohibiting nudity. As well as the naked communal showers before swimming, you will find winter bathers taking a dip in the nude, because a freezing wet costume is uncomfortable. Sunbathers often take their tops off, there are the famous naked runs at Roskilde Festival and Aarhus University and at school, pupils often shower naked after sport, in same-sex changing rooms.

“Nudity is allowed everywhere, as long as you don’t violate anyone,” Reventlow commented. 

“When you winter bathe, no one feels naked because they are not being looked at. You meet up, jump in, get a towel, dry off and go home.

“If you feel someone is looking at you, then you feel naked. So it’s not showing your body, it’s feeling comfortable about being naked,” she said.

READ ALSO: Why the shocking cold of winter bathing is a Nordic favourite

Reventlow is keen to point out that nudity in Denmark is nothing about exhibitionism or sexuality.

“They are nothing to do with each other and that’s what I think a lot of foreigners misinterpret. Nudism simply derives from a health culture. It’s about being comfortable with your body. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your body,” she said.

A survey conducted by the University of Zürich in 2016 showed that Denmark had the lowest number of people who suffered from gelotophobia – a fear of ridicule – in any country surveyed. Just 1.62 percent of Danes suffer from this, according to the study, as opposed to 13 percent of British people.

However there has been a shift recently, with the younger generation in Denmark becoming more self conscious about their bodies.

“You could say the nation is split in two, because most women are not comfortable in their bodies and that’s a huge problem for young girls,” Reventlow told The Local.

Whereas the culture of nudity in the 1970s was all about expressing freedom, today Reventlow says it is about reinforcing normal looking bodies to a generation exposed to a world of filters. 

“Most Danish girls are not comfortable with taking a naked shower with their classmates at school and a lot refuse to. In fact a lot of young people now think nudity should not be allowed.

“I think it’s a major problem that Instagram and other social media platforms that have nothing to do with reality, show these unattainable bodies. Young people also see a lot of porn and normal bodies don’t look like that.

“So I think the Danish culture of nudism is serving a new purpose now, to show natural bodies. It should never be compromising but to see that we are shaped differently and everything is fine,” Reventlow explained.

It’s something Danish broadcaster DR spread awareness of with its programme “Ultra Strips Down”, launched in 2019.

In the series, five adults stood naked in front of an audience of 11-13 year olds, to show them what bodies look like and gave the children an opportunity to ask questions. The series won an award but was also criticised by some, with right-wing Danish politician Peter Skaarup accusing the programme-makers of choosing a “vulgar way” to educate children.

The same controversy surrounded DR’s programme John Dillermand. Aimed at four to eight year olds, the animation is about a man with the world’s longest penis (dillermand literally means “penis-man”) that can do extraordinary things like rescue operations or hoisting a flag.

“We think it’s important to be able to tell stories about bodies,” public broadcaster DR posted on Facebook after the programme’s launch in January 2021.

“In the series, we recognise (young children’s) growing curiosity about their bodies and genitals, as well as embarrassment and pleasure in the body.”

Denmark is certainly a country that has a history of accepting nudity without shame or connotation. But it is also a country that is becoming conflicted in the nature of nakedness.