Symbols you’ll see on Greenland’s National Day

A peep into Greenland’s National Day, its flag and the national costume

Today, on June 21st, we invite you to join us in celebrating Greenland’s National Day – wherever you are in the world. Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq, the capital city municipality, will be livestreaming the day’s event in order to minimise risk of infection with COVID-19. You can expect regular activities such as speeches, live music and cultural activities streamed live on the municipality’s Facebook page

In Greenlandic, this day is called Ullortuneq which means the longest day of the year. As dawn technically arrives in Nuuk (it has been bright for most of the night), people who have dressed in the Greenlandic national costume hoist up their red and white flag and march together towards the old colonial harbour where celebrations will run all day. Welcome speeches, choir singing, and Nuuk City Orchestra brighten up the mood of National day.

In this article, I introduce some insight of two national symbols of Greenland; the Greenlandic flag and the intricately designed Greenlandic national costume that has developed over the centuries.

National Day Gathering By The Old Harbour. Photo by Aningaaq R Carlsen - Visit Greenland

The Greenlandic flag

Erfalasorput (Greenlandic)

Erfalasorput - Greenland's flag on a sunny day in South Greenland among rocks and flowers. Photo by Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

The credit of designing the Greenlandic flag goes to Thue Christiansen who was a Greenlandic teacher, artist and politician. There were some other proposals such as a green cross with a white background or a white cross with a green background. However the current design was chosen and introduced on the 21st of June in 1985. The name of the national flag is Erfalasorput which means ‘our flag’ in Greenlandic. Unlike the flags of other Nordic countries (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Aaland, the Faroe Islands, and Finland), there is no Nordic cross on the Greenlandic flag. However, the red and white colour of this Arctic inspired flag came from its Danish counterpart. The white background represents the ice cap, the bottom red background represents the ocean, the upper half circle signifies the sun and the bottom half circle signifies a floating iceberg.

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Greenlandic National Costume

Kalaallisuut (Greenlandic)

Greenland’s national costume has a different variation depending upon where it is from – this is no surprise, as Greenland is the biggest island in the world, and it wasn’t so easy to travel around the country before. Here I would like to introduce the West Greenlandic female costume which is widely used from South to North Greenland except the area around Qaanaaq.

National Clothing. Photo by Aningaaq R Carlsen - Visit Greenland

Anorak – Colours as status symbols

If you have ever seen the Greenlandic national costume, you would get the impression that it is very colourful but that red is the dominant colour. However traditionally, not only red, but also blue, green and black colours have been used on the female national costume. Each colour has a meaning. For example, red was for unmarried women, blue was for the married woman, green was the unmarried woman but with children, and black was for widows. However since the red colour became popular, it has become the primary colour in the national costume.

A colourful history

Interestingly, the colour of the anorak, which is the top half of the costume, was influenced by hair ribbons which were worn in the 1700s. Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was a missionary from Germany who brought the tradition with him. At that time, ladies in his country used ribbons around their neck to express whether they were married or not. Because the Greenlandic women wore clothing with high collars, they improvised and tied ribbons around their hair bun instead.

Back then, there was no specific colour allocated to the anorak in Greenland. If one could get fabric, regardless of colour, that was what you used to make an anorak. This lasted until the early 1900s. However when the KGH (Den Kongelige Grønlandske Handel, the Royal Greenland Trading Department) started to have Greenlandic locals as workers in their business, it became much easier to order products they wanted from outside of Greenland. Greenlanders started ordering the colour fabric that they wanted, and consequently the symbolic meaning of the hair ribbons’ colour transmitted from the hair to anorak. While there is still cultural reference to the colour of anorak reflecting one’s status, these days red is widely used regardless of a woman’s situation.

Greenland National Costume - National Museum - Nuuk. Photo by Melody Adams - Visit Greenland
Details Of The Costume. Photo by Peter Lindstrom - Visit Greenland

Beads

Now we can see very colourful and beautifully sewn beads on the female’s national costume. However it was not part of the original version. It all started when Dutch whalers came and traded goods, including beads. Beads became a sign of wealth in the Greenlandic national costume. In the beginning, the beaded collar was short but it became longer and longer. Today, the beadwork covers almost half of the anorak.

Animal skins

It is impossible not to talk about animal skins when it comes to the Greenlandic national costume. Several different animal skins are used to make the costume. First and foremost, seal skin is used for the kamiks and pants. Sheep calfskin is used on the front part of the pants together with beautifully dyed sealskin leather. Greenlandic embroidery that uses a few millimeters of colourful sealskin is called Avittat. It is used on both female and male kamiks as well. In addition, Greenlandic ladies use knitted wrist warmers inside the costume. It is called paffequtit/tajarutit and it originated from Iceland.

Parts of a national costume on display in Itilleq in Greenland. Photo by Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

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The National Day In Their National Clothing. Photo by Aningaaq R Carlsen - Visit Greenland

From generation to generation

The Greenlandic national costumes are generally passed down from generation to generation. It is used on special occasions, not only for happy moments but also for sad ones too. From baptism, the first day of school, confirmation, graduation, weddings to funerals, it looks like life’s big moments circle around the colourful attire. The Greenlandic national costume, inspired from other cultures, has throughout centuries of adaptation finally emerged with its own style.

Today, on June 21st, the Greenlandic flag proudly flaps around every corner of Greenland and we celebrate National Day.

Writer

Kim Insuk (Visit Greenland)

Contributor

Camilla Lennert (Kittat)

Editor

Tanny Por (Visit Greenland)