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Why do Danes use their national flag as a birthday banner?

The Local Denmark
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Why do Danes use their national flag as a birthday banner?
Birthdays aren't the only occasions on which Danes bring out the national flag. File photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

If you ever drive past a Danish house with the national flag flying high and scores of small paper versions decorating the front garden, you are more likely to have stumbled upon a child’s birthday than a nationalist convention.

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Danes’ love for their national flag is not only the default theme for birthday parties (not least for children) — it is a staple for celebrations of any sort.

Most Danish households have not-insignificant stocks of flags in various sizes to suit all of life’s most special occasions, and there’s a year-round section of Dannebrog (the name of the national flag) party supplies in most supermarkets.

As well as its use as a decoration on birthdays, confirmations, student graduations and even weddings, you can get Dannebrog garlands for your Christmas tree.

That’s not to say the offset white cross on its red background cannot also be a patriotic symbol. You will also see it every on the Queen’s birthday and other national holidays as well during major sporting occasions like big football and handball games, the Olympics or the Tour de France.

READ ALSO: 26 sure-fire ways to truly offend a Dane

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Its connection with birthdays and other celebrations dates back to the early 19th century, when actor H.C. Knudsen stirred up patriotic sentiment with performances of songs and poems honouring Denmark, always staged in front of a Dannebrog.

Prior to this in the 18th century, Dannebrog was strictly a symbol of royalty and the military, as Aalborg University historian Torben Kjersgaard Nielsen, author of a book on the Danish flag, told The Local in 2021.                                                            

This sparked the national flag’s popularity to such an extent that by the 1830s, King Frederik VI banned its use by private individuals out of fear it would become a symbol of rebellion, like in the French Revolution.

This did not stop its popularity from continuing to surge, though, and the ban was lifted around 20 years later.

READ ALSO: Why do Danes cover each other in cinnamon on their 25th birthdays?

Denmark celebrated in 2019 the 800th anniversary of the mythical moment when a banner sporting a white cross fell miraculously from the sky as Danish crusaders were fighting a fierce battle against pagan Estonian tribes, thus giving Dannebrog an origin story, if one not fully backed up by historical evidence.

Danes' use of the flag for birthdays and other celebrations in modern contexts is mostly about creating a sense of occasion, Kjersgaard Nielsen said when interviewed by news wire Ritzau on the topic of the anniversary.

"We are not thinking especially nationalistically when we put the birthday flag in a home-made cake or when young people come back from a backpacking holiday," he said at the time. 

"But we probably are thinking politically when we for example see political parties using the flag as part of their communications," he 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,” Kjersgaard Nielsen said to The Local in 2021.

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