Ullortuneq – Greenland’s National Day

June 21

Greenland. Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen

“Our country, who’s become so old your head all covered with white hair.
Always held us, your children, in your bosom providing the riches of your coasts.”

— from Greenland’s National Anthem

“And you: friendless, brainless, helpless, hopeless! Do you want me to send you back to where you were? Unemployed in Greenland!”

—Vizzini, The Princess Bride

Contrary to what Vizzini would have you believe, Greenland is not entirely a world devoid of life and hope. Although it does have a reputation as Iceland’s “redheaded Viking step-cousin, relatively ignored in a frozen wasteland far away from the rest of the world.” (Branding Greenland)

Greenland, long ruled by the Kingdom of Denmark, has been moving (at a glacier’s pace) toward independent nationhood since 1953. In 1979 and again in 2009 it gained greater autonomy from Denmark, which still exercises responsibility for Greenland’s foreign affairs. (CIA World Factbook)

Greenland adopted it’s own national flag on June 21, 1985. The red and white flag symbolizes the midnight sun and white the snow that covers much of the island. According to greenland.com, about 10% of fresh water on earth is frozen in Greenland’s ice sheet.

“If the Greenland Ice Sheet melted, scientists estimate that sea level would rise about 6 meters (20 feet).” — National Snow & Ice Data Center

In terms of area, Greenland is the 13th largest country in the world. In terms of popuation though, it’s only 205th, with about 60,000 people.

June 21, the longest day of the year, is Greenland’s National Day as well as its Flag Day. It’s known as “Ullortuneq”, or “Longest Day.”

Happy National Day, Greenland. Enjoy the longest day!

Ittoqqortoormiit. Photo by Hannes Grobe

Flag Day Part I

June 14

“We meet to celebrate Flag Day because this flag which we honor and under which we serve is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation…

We celebrate the day of its birth; and from its birth until now it has witnessed a great history, has floated on high the symbol of great events, of a great plan of life worked out by a great people.

“We are about to carry it into battle, to lift it where it will draw the fire of our enemies. We are about to bid thousands, hundreds of thousands, it may be millions, of our men, the young, the strong, the capable men of the nation, to go forth and die beneath it on the fields of blood far away,—

“for what?”

Woodrow Wilson, June 14, 1917. Address restating the reasons for U.S. entry into World War I

Flag Day was less than a year old when the U.S. entered World War I.

President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed June 14th as Flag Day in 1916. The choice of June 14th is largely attributed to a school teacher from Waubeka, Wisconsin back in the 1880’s. Bernard Cigrand proposed the anniversary of the Second Continental Congress’s adoption of the first U.S. flag on June 14, 1777. He wrote articles about the should-be holiday and promoted it locally and nationally through articles and events.

The first National Flag Day was June 14, 1916. The backdrop of the celebrations was the war in Europe in which millions of young men were being cut down by machine gun fire and other wonders of modern warfare technology or (far more) by disease. Americans fiercely debated whether the U.S. should become involved in the European conflict. In April 1917, President Wilson—who had run on a policy of isolationism–asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and its allies.

It would be a while before troops were ready to be sent to Europe, but America wanted to send a symbol of its presence immediately.

Arthur Clifford Kimber, a 21 year-old Stanford University student and Ambulance Corps volunteer, was selected to carry the flag of the Stanford Unit of the American Ambulance Field Service across the country and then across the Atlantic to France. It was a largely symbolic gesture—the first officially sanctioned U.S. flag sent to the front after U.S. entry in the war.

Before Kimber even left the States, he showed his tenacity by defending the chosen flag from a mob of U.C. (University of California) students in New York. As Stanford’s rivals, the Cal students wrestled the flag from him before a parade down Fifth Avenue. The Cal students took off in a taxi, which Kimber chased by jumping onto the running-board of passing car. He caught up with the taxi at 73rd St, retrieved the flag with the aid of a cop, and made it back in time for the start of the parade…

Flag Day Part II

Flag Day Part II

A living flag, U.S. Naval training station, Great Lakes, IL, 1917.

from Flag Day Part I

A few weeks later, on June 4, 1917, Kimber presented the flag in a more somber ceremony, largely for the American Ambulance Corps volunteers who were already stationed near Treveray, France.

“My instructions were to bring the flag as quickly as I could, and that I have done to the best of my ability. You know the history of this flag: how it was dedicated and blessed in California; how it led a parade in New York down Fifth Avenue before thousands of persons, and how it was saluted and cheered by that vast multitude; how an attempt to capture it was frustrated; how it reposed in the chancel of Old Trinity Church and was there seen and prayed for by hundreds; and how it was carried through England on its way to France.”

The ceremony ended in a promise by a military official that the defeat of German tyranny would “assure for all time the victory of right, of justice, and of liberty.”

Later that year Kimber realized his dream. He earned his wings as a pilot with the U.S. Air Service.

On June 15, 1918, the day after flag day and a year after his initial speech, he learned that his best friend from back home, Alan Nichols, had been killed behind enemy lines. He weeped for his friend, that war would take such a good man, unaware that in a few short months he would meet a similar fate.

On September 14th, Kimber had a particularly close mission, in which his plane was shot up almost beyond repair. But “The three vital parts—my engine, the gas tank, and I—were untouched,” he wrote home the following day. He concluded his letter with the words,

God was merciful to me; I hope I can prove myself worthy of His mercy in this war and in later life. Well I must quit; good-bye, good luck and lots of it and much love. God bless you all.”

Eleven days later, God was not so merciful. A month and a half before the Armistice ended the “War To End All Wars,” Kimber’s plane was shot down along the German lines.

“That war insistently devours such men as Clifford Kimber is its final indictment at the bar of civilization” — David Starr Jordan

*  *  *

Woodrow Wilson noted the importance of the flag in times of peace as well as war. But make no mistake, it’s always been war that has given flags their import. As Francis Scott Key wrote:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.

Flags are born of war, defended in war, have perished in war. Our almost religious devotion to these pieces of fabric is largely due to the intangible and unpayable debt to those who gave their lives defending them.

It was during wartime that a group of traitors rebelling against the English crown sat down and adopted the flag, a symbol of what the newly united states were fighting for. Betsy Ross and the founders broke from European tradition by not placing the cross or overtly religious symbols on their banner. Instead they instituted a design that would make the U.S. flag unique.

Before June 1777, other Americans had placed 13 stripes on their flags, representing the 13 colonies, and a British Union Jack in the corner. But where the Union Jack had been, Ross and the founders placed a circle of 13 stars. A little redundant perhaps, but this allowed for the possibility of adding new stars to the flag for new states as the Union expanded.

As the number of states increased, so did the number of stars. Today, one can view the U.S.’s 230+ year history in a single glance. Always stars and stripes, always red, white and blue. But changing slowly to reflect the changing country, just like the Constitution.

Would the representatives of the 13 fledgling states that banded together in 1777 recognize the 50-star Mega-State that we know today? Perhaps not.

Would they recognize the flag?

In a moment.

On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

— Francis Scott Key, the less-recited 2nd verse of the Star-Spangled Banner

The Story of the First Flag : An Account of the Mission of Arthur Clifford Kimber

28 Incarnations of the U.S. Flag, 1775 – present

Mexican Flag Day

February 24

Flag of Mexico!
Legacy of our heroes,
Symbol of the unity of our parents and of our siblings,
We promise you to be always faithful
To the principles of liberty and justice
That make our Homeland
The independent, humane and generous nation
To which we dedicate our existence.

Flag Day is held on the anniversary of the creation of the Plan de Iguala in 1821, named for the city Iguala in which it was signed. The Plan did not end the War of Independence but paved the way for victory. It set forth three  ‘Guarantees’ or agreements of the future Constitutional Mexican government:

  1. Establishment of Roman Catholicism as the national religion<
  2. Creation of an independent, sovereign nation of Mexico
  3. Equality for social and ethnic groups

The call “Religión, Independencia y Unión” became the motto of the Mexican people, and the Plan led to the creation of national army, (the Army of the Three Guarantees) made up of the forces of Augustin de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero.

Iturbide was one of the most colorful and important figures in Mexican history.

Augustin de Iturbide Augustin de Iturbide

(Augustin de Iturbide)

Born in Mexico, the son of a Spanish father and Mexican mother, he joined the Spanish army at age 15. By 27, when the war broke out, he was a lieutenant. By 33 he was the commander of Spanish forces of Northern Mexico. Then, in 1820 Iturbide did a remarkable thing: he did a complete about face and joined the cause of the Mexicans, taking most of his army with him.

Upon signing of the Plan de Iguala, Iturbide’s forces joined with those of Vicente Guerrero, future President of Mexico. The Treaty of Cordoba, signed by the Spanish Viceroy confirmed the establishment of an independent Mexico in late 1821.

In 1822 Iturbide was crowned Augustin I, Emperor of Mexico. Opposition to his military style government steadily grew. Forces under General Santa Anna forced Iturbide to abdicate and leave the country, with the understanding he would be executed upon setting foot in Mexico again. Mexico was declared a republic in 1823.

Iturbide traveled to Italy and London, but returned to Mexico in 1824, despite the threat of execution. Authorities made good on their promise. Iturbide was arrested in Tamaulipas and shot by law enforcement authorities in the nearby town of Padilla. He was 42.

The first Mexican national flag was adopted by the Decree of November 2, 1821 and confirmed two months later on January 7, 1822.

Its colors stand for:

  • Green: hope and victory
  • White: purity of ideals
  • Red: blood of national heroes

The symbol of the eagle sitting atop a cactus devouring a serpent dates back to a timeless legend. The ancestors of the Aztecs wandered about Mexico for 200 years in search of a homeland. They had been told by the god Quetalcoatl that the site of their future home would be marked by an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. When they encountered such a scene they claimed the location as their homeland.

The site marks what is now Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world.

Flag Day in Turkmenistan

February 19

Turkmenistan’s Flag Day was established in 1997 to coincide with the birthday of then-President Saparmurat Niyazov (1940-2006).

Turkmenistan Flag

Niyazov ruled the country for over twenty years. He became Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party (ie. Head Honcho) in 1985 and remained in power after Turkmenistan declared its independence in October 1991.

Turkmenistan prefers stability to change. One of the last of the Soviet Republics to formerly break from Russia, the country remained a one-party Communist state with party leader Niyazov as its President. In 1994 his term was extended to ten years by a vote of the Mejlis, the parliament which he controlled. Before the term was set to expire, a newly ‘elected’ Mejlis, consisting of members groomed by Niyazov, benevolently heaped a new title on their leader: “President for Life.”

Highlights of the Niyazov administration include:

  • Bestowed title upon himself: “Serdar Turkmenbashi.” (Great Leader of all Turkmen.)
  • Renamed the month of April after his mother.
  • Renamed January after himself: Turkmenbashi
  • Wrote the “Ruhnama,” a guide of his views on spiritual living–required reading for all schoolchildren.
  • Named airports, streets and landmarks after himself.

During his reign posters and statues of him were put up on almost every block in the country.

According to a segment from 60 Minutes (aired January 2004):

“He’s not only a brutal dictator, but a dictator who runs his country like it’s his own private Disney World…His face is everywhere, and you can’t walk a block without seeing either a statue or photo of him.”

Said the humble Great Leader in response:

“I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets—but it’s what the people want.”

And as for renaming months after himself and his family, he explained:

“You can’t have a great country without great ancestors—and we had none before. We’re starting new, with a new society, and this new culture will be followed for centuries.”

In defense of his authoritative rule, he explained it from the Turkmenistan perspective:

“You Americans, you should understand one thing—for 74 years under the Soviets we were prohibited from thinking about political opposition parties. Look at America—you had a civil war, you didn’t have instant democracy. Yet now you demand we create democracy in Turkmenistan overnight.

Niyazov died in 2006 without an apparent successor.

International Crisis Group noted, “His two decades in power bequeathed ruined education and public health sectors, a record of human rights abuses, thousands of political prisoners and an economy under strain despite rich energy exports.”

The International Herald Tribune says that change has come to post-Niyazov Turkmenistan:

“For his 63rd birthday, [2003] Niyazov’s ministers proclaimed him God’s prophet on Earth. This year, [2008] according to a law passed last week, Flag Day – a holiday typically observed in conjunction with Niyazov’s birthday – will be celebrated exclusively.”

Though his legacy has begun to fade, Turkmenistan still celebrates Flag Day today, February 19, on what would have been the Turkmenbashi’s 69th birthday.

Gettin’ Zany with Albania

November 28

Albania, Albania,
You border on the Adriatic
Your land is mostly mountainous
And your chief export is chrome

Albanian National Anthem

Ok, the above lyrics are not from the Albanian national anthem. They’re from that episode of Cheers where Coach demonstrates how it’s easier to learn factoids when they’re set to music. (Sung to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In“.)

Albania is one of the most overlooked countries of Europe, yet one of the most beautiful. And Albanians are fiercely proud of this fact. On no day is Albanian pride more evident than on November 28, Albania’s Flag Day, Independence Day, and just about everything else all wrapped up into one.

Giorgios Kastriotis, Skanderbeg

Back in 1443 an Albanian by the name of Giorgios Kastrioti, aka Skanderbeg (Lord Skander) was fighting on behalf of the Ottoman Empire against the Hungarians. Years before, the Sultan had usurped the Kastrioti family’s lands. The family had submitted to his rule, converted to Islam, and young Giorgios and his brothers were conscripted. Giorgios was granted the title “Beg”, or Lord. He even became a general in the Ottoman army, winning several battles against the Greeks, the Serbs and the Hungarians.

On November 28, 1443, during a battle against the Hungarians, Skanderbeg and 300 Albanians fighting for the Ottoman Empire suddenly switched sides. Skanderbeg first raised the double-headed eagle banner that is now the flag of Albania.

Skanderbeg soon united the Albanian princes against the Sultan. Through strategy, trickery, wits and will, his greatly outnumbered forces held the Ottoman Empire at bay for over two decades, even after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman army finally subdued Albania in 1479, ten years after Skanderbeg’s death by malaria.


The Ottoman Empire ruled Albania until the early 20th century. In 1908 Albanian fighters sided with the Young Turks, a group fighting to restore constitutional government across the Empire. After the Sultan conceded, the Young Turks loosened restrictions that had banned Albanian language and culture. However, when Albanian nationalism resurfaced, the Young Turk government cracked down harder than before, crushing the Albanian rebellion and enforcing “Ottomanization’.

The tightening of power only inflamed the independence movement. In 1911 Albanian fighters defeated a group of Turkish troops and raised the double-headed eagle flag for the first time since the days of Skanderbeg.

On November 28, 1912, during the height of the First Balkan War, the National Assembly announced that “delegates from all parts of Albania, without distinction of religion, who have today met in the town of Valona, have proclaimed the political independence of Albania…” (Albanian Declaration of Independence)

In 1939 Albania met a new enemy, this time in the West. Italian dictator Mussolini, envious of the ease with which Hitler annexed neighboring countries, tried his own hand as Conqueror. He chose as his victim the mighty kingdom of Albania. King Zog was forced to flee, and Albania experienced 5 years under the Axis. Communist-led nationalist forces liberated the country (Albanians are quick to point out they were liberated not by the USSR but by themselves) on November 29, 1944.

Albania became a communist country, but wasn’t dominated by Moscow. In fact they broke ties with the Soviet Union during the latter’s de-Stalinization. Post-Stalin USSR just wasn’t communist enough for Albania.

On November 28, 1998, Albania voted for a new parliamentary constitution–555 years to the day after Skanderbeg first raised the Albanian flag.

For all these reasons, today, November 28, is Albania’s National Day.

+  +  +

In American cinema, Albania enjoys a unique status as the country we’re most likely to scapegoat for arbitrary reasons. In Wag the Dog, Robert Dinero and Dustin Hoffman cook up a fake war against Albania to take the attention off the President’s affair…

“Why Albania?”

“Why not?”

“What have they ever done to us?”

“What have they ever done for us?”

In Tune in Tomorrow, radio serial writer Peter Falk so offends the Albanian-American population with his random Albanian jokes, that he is forced to pick a new arbitrary target: Norwegians.

Late Medieval Balkans – by John Van Antwerp

Flag Day – Russia

August 22

They’re waving the red, white and blue over in Russia today, though not necessarily in that order. The white-blue-red Russian tri-color flag dates back to the 1660s when Czar Alexei Mikhailovich ordered ships to fly a similar banner for identification. Historians speculate it may have been inspired by the Dutch flag, the oldest remaining tri-color national flag.

Dutch flag
Dutch flag

In the 1880s Czar Alexander III declared the tri-color flag the official flag of Russia. After the October Revolution of 1917, the tri-color was replaced by the red Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag.

The Soviet flag flies over the Berlin Reichstag at the end of WWII
The Soviet flag flies over the Berlin Reichstag at the end of WWII

Flag Day marks the anniversary of the end of the failed 1991 “August Putsch”, a coup which attempted to stem Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies of the 1980s, but which led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union instead.

Subject 110 and The Gang of Eight

In early to mid-1991, Gorbachev–one of the two most powerful men in the world–was placed under surveillance, not by a foreign power, but by his own KGB.

The head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, was fearful of the liberal Russian president’s attempts to modernize the country through the decentralization of power. Gorby was working with leaders of the separate Soviet republics on a treaty that would increase the sovereignty of the republics, a move he deemed necessary to sustain the unity of the whole. Hard-liners opposed the treaty.

In July, Khryuchkov overheard a conversation between Subject #110 (Gorbachev) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in which it was suggested that they replace old school party members like Kryuchnov and his cronies with more liberal ones.

Kryuchkov was not down with this. Nor were his seven cronies, henceforth know as the “Gang of Eight.”

On August 18, some of the Gang of Eight paid Gorbachev a friendly visit while he vacationed at his dacha in the Crimea, during which the concerned visitors ensured the Soviet leader’s rest and privacy by cutting off all channels of communication and placing him under house arrest. The following day they attempted to assume control of the country, due to Gorbachev’s “illness”.

A quarter million handcuffs and arrest forms had been ordered. Prisons were emptied to make room for agitators. Independent newspapers were shut down, and tanks prepared to roll into the capital to seize control of the Russia’s parliament building, the “White House”.

The Russian White House
The Russian "White House" (note the barricades)

Boris Yeltsin and other leaders urged the military not to support the coup. They called for a general strike and demanded that Gorbachev be allowed to address the nation. Citizens surrounded the White House and barricaded it with whatever they could — trolleys, street sweepers, homemade barriers — to prevent the military from attacking.

Boris Yeltsin (left) during the 1991 coup
Boris Yeltsin (left) during the coup

On August 21, at 1 AM, tanks and army vehicles moved in. A pivotal moment was when Spetsgruppa A (Alfa Group), the military unit entrusted with entering the White House and killing Boris Yeltsin and company, analyzed the number of civilian deaths such an action would require, and refused to carry out their mission.

The hard-liners knew they were in deep. They attempted to strike a deal with Gorbachev. He refused to meet with them. That evening communications were restored at the dacha; Gorbachev denounced the actions of the Gang of Eight, ordered their dismissals, and resumed control of the country.

The following day, August 22, the Russian legislature chose to fly Russia’s historic tri-color flag rather than the hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union.

It was only a piece of cloth, but the symbolic gesture of raising the pre-Soviet flag was tantamount to Russia declaring its own independence from the Soviet Union. And without Russia, there could be no Soviet Union.

Between August 20 and August 30, Estonia, Kyrgyztan, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan declared independence. In September, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Tajikstan, and Armenia did the same.

Ten years later…

“A poll released in July said only 10 percent regarded [August 1991] as a democratic revolution that ended Communist power. Twenty-five percent look back at August 1991 as a tragic event whose aftermath was disastrous for the country.” — NewsHour, August 22, 2001

Venezuela – Flag Day

August 3 (since 2006)


Up until 2006, Venezuelans celebrated El Día de la Bandera (Flag Day) on March 12th, in honor of the day in 1806 that Francisco de Miranda first hoisted the future flag of Venezuela on the ship Leander.

Miranda was born in Caracas, Venezuela. During the American Revolutionary War, Miranda fought for Spain in Florida. In France he served in the French Revolutionary Army. And between those two revolutions he lived in England, Italy, Prussia, and the Ottoman Empire.

But he’s most famous for his role in the liberation of his homeland Venezuela, a crusade that occupied the last decade of his life.

In 1806 Miranda acquired unofficial British support to lead a rebellion against Spain in South America. On March 12, 1806, Miranda raised the tricolor flag, which he himself designed, atop the ship Leander, just before she and two other ships set forth from Haiti to liberate South America.

The plan didn’t work.

The other two ships were captured by the Spanish, their occupants tried, and many were put to death. The Leander escaped, arriving in La Vela de Coro on August 3, 1806, flag in tact.

Miranda led the struggle against Spanish forces for the next several years. On Maundy Thursday in 1810 a military junta established a provisional Venezuelan government, to which Miranda was appointed as a delegate from El Pao. The congress adopted Miranda’s tricolor flag as the official banner the following year.

However, later losses, and a huge earthquake which hit Venezuela on Maundy Thursday two years after the junta (taken by many as a sign from God against the revolution) reduced Venezuelan morale and popular support. Miranda became a generalissimo with dictatorial powers, but as the revolutionary effort crumbled, he began considering an armistice with Spain.

Simon Bolivar and other revolutionaries viewed Miranda as a traitor. In one of Bolivar’s less touted moves, he and his co-patriots turned Miranda over to the Spanish. Miranda was transported Spain, incarcerated, and died in his cell four years later—on July 14 (Bastille Day) 1816.

He was buried in a mass grave.

Francisco de Miranda in Cadíz
Francisco de Miranda in Cadíz

In 2006, the Venezuelan government voted to change the date of Flag Day to August 3rd to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the flag’s (and Miranda’s) arrival on Venezuelan soil.

“Miranda was a man of the eighteenth century whose genius lay in raising the consciousness and confidence of his fellow Americans. Although he prided on being a soldier, his greatest battles were fought with his pen.”

Francisco de Miranda, a Transatlantic Life in the Age of Revolution, by Karen Racine

Venezuelan Flag & Flag Day