Every morning as we walk to the barnehage (kindergarten), there is a little surge of excitement if my daughter sees the Norwegian flag flying outside. This is no small mini-flag version for small people to wave about on national day. No, it’s the proper full size Norwegian flag, hanging there in all of its glory from a proper flag holder mounted on the wall. The flying flag means that somebody in the barnehage has a birthday that day, either a child or a teacher.
So my daughter’s mind immediately goes in to overdrive, who could it be, is it someone in her Pirates group, what will they have as a treat if so. Fruit smoothies or exotic fruit, usually. We get to the gate and she surges forward like a little hurricane to check whose picture is on the wall next to the flag. The picture is always laminated, to protect against the elements, of course.
The national flag carries a huge significance here, like in every country. We’ve always had great pride in the tricolor in Ireland, that green, white and gold flag that stood for the Irish national identity and Irish independence and freedom all in one. The white in the middle represents peace between the “2 sides”, the Catholics in green and the Protestants in orange. A lovely idea but that particular symbolism didn’t really ring true on the island of Ireland for a long time.
I remember driving through Northern Ireland on my way to Belfast in the nineties. As soon as I drove across the border, I could see the flag take on a whole new meaning. There seemed to be flags everywhere, there to show that this town was mainly Unionist and Protestant, with British Union Jacks everywhere or the next town was primarily Republican and Catholic, with many Irish tricolours blowing in the wind. At the end of the day, there is no better way to show your religious, political and cultural allegiance in conflict areas than the flag. And they did, with pride. I have also seen kerbsides painted in housing estates in Belfast, blue/red/white or green/white/gold, territory firmly marked and loyalties clear.
And as for Norway, it strikes me that how and when the flag is used is very tightly controlled and well respected. There are about 15 days a year when the flag can be flown from public buildings around the country, they include birthdays of the King, Queen and the royal family, Christmas, Easter and so on. A more informal rule is the one that says that you can also fly it outside of your house on your birthday, that is your way of celebrating your big day with family, friend and country.
It took us a while to find out that there were rules associated with when you fly the Norwegian flag. On our first national day, May 17th, we got flags for the kids and went to the parade in Oslo city centre. Then we had the bright idea of hanging the little flags in the flagpole outside our house, you know, to continue the festive feeling. A few weeks later, my husband came home from work with a vital snippet of flag information, that it can’t be your birthday every day and the flag is for special occasions only. Take them down, quick!!
Now I am no vexillologist ( good word, that ) but flags are interesting, especially what they represent to the ordinary person on the street. Apparently the football World Cup in Germany in 2006 brought back a sense of national pride in the German flag that had been absent for decades. Flying the flag didn’t represent your far-right views or any other, just the fact that it was good to be German and doing a great job hosting a great tournament.
In America, it always struck me when I was there that every American citizen felt they owned those stars and stripes, it was their right to fly it outside their houses or workplaces when they wanted to. Their right to say, “I’m an American, a believer in democracy, a believer in The American Dream, and my brandishing the flag should tell you all of this in a heartbeat.”
Here, it feels a little different. It feels like the flag is a very precious piece of national identity, with all rights belonging to the Kingdom of Norway, you can use it now and then but you give it back at the end of the day. Then you fold it up (properly) and put it somewhere safe. You are a caretaker with no ownership perks coming with that.
The funny thing here is that, even though use of the flag is closely regulated, it’s very common to wear flag symbols on your clothing, from jackets to sweatshirts to hats. And it’s not just tourists who do it, the locals do it too. The flag represents national pride, that same pride that comes with the pushing out of the chest, demure but there nonetheless, when someone says to you that “Jeg er norsk!”, “I am Norwegian!”. There is no fear at all that wearing the flag symbol may offend anyone, any religion, any other nationalities or cultures. Or that it would declare your politics or religion to the world. It doesn’t. Any difficulties you may have with the Vikings can’t be connected to the flag, they are just too far back to count anymore. And anyway, who could have problems with the guys who brought us those helmets, in fairness.