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Danskhed: What is Danishness?

“That is not the way we do it in Denmark.”

This is a comment you often hear when interacting with Danes. Danes have a word for this belief that the Danish way is the right way: Danskhed which translates to Danishness. However, I often wondered what IS Danish, and is there really only ONE Danishness, and if not, who’s Danishness is the real one? And I’m not alone to be asking this question!


I have, therefore, been interested in what has caused this interest in Danishness by the Danes in a very different way to the way other nationalities look at their national identity. Taking the example of Malta: people there have a strong identity, but it is not discussed on a national level in much the same way. We don’t even have a corresponding word! Furthermore I still struggled to identify if Danes actually understood what ‘Danishness’ meant and if everyone understood the same thing.

One of the sources I have found that makes a very good attempt at discussing how Danishness arose is ‘Being Danish’ by Richard Jenkins. He writes that the current belief in the existence of something that can be called ‘Danishness’ is part of Grundtvig’s legacy from the 1800s and his key values amongst which there is patriotism. Since many people, especially in education, childcare and voluntary association systems still hold these principles in high regard Jenkins suggests that it is them who are “at the heart of the national master narrative that insists that all Danes are basically the same”. However, when digging deeper he realises that while people talk about Danishness with a confidence that everyone would understand what they are referring to it is “equally clear that they did not always agree about what it was that they had in common”.


Putting this in context, it is worthwhile noting that there was something else going on in Denmark in the 1800s, besides the emergence of Grundtvig and his widely accepted principles: Denmark was a much bigger empire (see map below). In 1780 the Danish empired covered all that is today Denmark, plus Norway, a number of overseas territories and what is now Schleswig and Holstein in Germany. In 1814 Denmark lost Norway in the Treaty of Kiel. In 1864, a significant part of Denmark was lost to Prussia. Towards the later 1800s and early 1900s Denmark lost much of its overseas possession.

This vast reduction in size of the Danish empire was maybe what caused this notion of Denmark consisting of one homogenous people that needs to defended and maintained. This undoubtedly was the perfect environment for Grundtvig’s principles to emerge and flourish until this very day.

So what IS Danishness? The closest I got to a definition was in the Being Danish book by Jenkins. On analysing readers’ letters to the Skive newspaper about the Maastricht Treaty he identified that when Danes talk about Danishness (IF they do, since most take it for granted), it appears to indicate:

co-operative and egalitarian similarity within Denmark (and indeed, Scandinavia), and independent difference from the rest of the world, especially Germany.

I have come to the end of my search, however, without understanding WHY Danes often come across as believing that the Danish way is the best way or simply the only way. However, I have a much better understanding of why this strong belief in Danishness has arisen.

And what about my view of what identifies ‘Danishness’ in a person? Someone who has very set ideas of the relationship between lamps and bulbs, uses candles as a feasible source of lighting, while intimately knowing the rules relating to open sandwiches. Now those three things I think I can never achieve. And lets not forget the flags!

Danish Flags

My first glaring encounter with the Danish flag happened on the first birthday card I received from Michael’s parents; I received an envelope covered in Danish flag stickers. I was taken aback, nigh offended. Why weren’t they respecting who I was and where I was coming from? Why weren’t they accepting my identity, and instead imposing their own onto me. The Danish flag has nothing to do with me, so why is it on MY card?

The Danish Flag

The Danish flag also known as the Dannebrog, consists of a white Scandinavian cross on a red background. The legend goes that the Danish flag fell from heaven during a battle in Tallinn on the 15th of June 1219. No historical records support this legend, though were the legend to be true the Dannebrog would be the oldest state flag still in use by an independent state.

It is customary that the flag is not suppose to touch the ground and should be taken down before sunset. There are also laws that you cannot fly another flag in Denmark besides the Dannebrog, unless the Dannebrog flies on a nearby pole at the same height (or higher), or if on the same pole, the Danish flag needs to be positioned on top.

Why its Widespread Use?

Of course, the feelings that I felt on receiving my first Danish birthday card are not what my Danish in-laws were aiming to project. As this article states, to Danes the flag is an empty symbol to which they can assign whatever attribute they would like. As Inge Adriansen is quoted as saying in that article, while the flag abroad is seen as a symbol of nationalism, in Denmark it is also seen as a symbol that the people own. These attributes are typically ones relating to celebrations, and in fact flags are used everywhere: at birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, farewells… supermarket discounts? You name the celebration, the Danes will bring the flags!

I have been slowly learning to accept this way that flags are used in Denmark. The fact that Michael has learnt to moderate flag usage around me helps. His parents? This year’s birthday card still had flags!

Flags on birthday card

Danish flags and kagemand

Elements of a Danish Celebration

Danes love their celebrations (as probably everyone does). However, there are certain elements that you won’t necessarily be familiar with. These are some of those elements that I was not used to before.

1.Danish Flags

Danish flags are a prerequisite of almost any celebration in Denmark. Danes go all out with them especially if it is your birthday: you will raise the flag on the flagpole you inevitably have outside your house, you neighbours will raise the Dannebrog as well, and at home and in the office you will raise a small flag on a small flagpole you inevitably have around the house.

Magnus blowing the birthday lights

That’s not all! If you receive a birthday card expect the envelope to be decorated with tiny Danish flag stickers, and do not be surprised if the card itself is a drawing of the Danish flag. If you have a party expect tiny cocktail sticks with Danish flags decorating most of the dishes, and numerous flags all over the tables. It’s an understatement to say that you cannot have a birthday without a Danish flag (and no – if you are foreign you will probably still get the Danish flag for you party! Or at least that is what I have got so far).

2. Hand Shaking

Any Danish party starts with a prerequisite round of hand shaking, where as you arrive you shake the hand of everyone already there and then stand at the end of the line waiting to shake the hand of all new arrivals. I have been told a number of strategies to deal with this: either arrive early so you do not have to do much walking, or arrive late so you do not have to do much standing. In any case, beware if the crowd is mainly big burly farmers. You hand will be the worse for wear.

Oh, and by the way, this is all repeated as you are leaving!

3. When do I Sit Down?

In case you arrived early and are done with standing around, can you go to your chair and sit down? Oh no you don’t!

When it becomes time to get to your (invariably) chairs and tables, don’t you dare sit down immediately! Protocol dictates that you wait for everyone to find their chair (probably you need to hunt down a seating plan first if it is a bigger party), stand behind it, and wait for the party host to give the word. If you unknowingly try to sit down early, you will be promptly jerked back by your neighbour. Don’t-even-dare!

4. Speeches and Such

No Danish gathering is complete without a speech or two (or 25!). The speeches invariably consist of memories the speechmaker has with the speech receiver(s). Tears are optional.

If you are not much of a speechmaker, however, do not despair! Instead of a speech you can commission any of numerous songwriters to write a special song for the special person on a well-known tune. Do not expect the song to rhyme much, or if it rhymes don’t expect the metric to fit the tune. All you need to do then is to get someone to start off the song, and off they go! struggling through the song like pros.

5. Birthday: Kagemand

A cake is a common feature in most birthday celebrations around the world. Denmark, however, gives you the cake man! The cake, especially for young kids, has to be in the shape of a man (or woman), regardless of what it is made of. I have seen him made as a biscuit, a sponge cake, even open sandwiches! The emphasis here is on the man. Who cares about cake?