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What Else Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?

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The Sergeant at Arms is perhaps most famous for being the guy at the State of the Union Address who shouts “Mister (or Madam) Speaker, the President of the United States!” But what does the Sergeant at Arms do the rest of the year?

The Sergeant at Arms traces its roots all the way back to the Roman Empire, where senior officers of state chose 12 patricians to act as bodyguards and serve police functions. These men had very few limits on their powers to arrest or use violence; they answered to no legal authority but their own master. King Phillip II of France borrowed this idea and formed a small, special corps of men, armed with decorated battle maces, to guard him when he traveled the Holy Land during the Crusades. The notion of a small cadre of police/guards found its way from France to England, via the Norman lords, as did the French name for the guards, sergent, from the Latin servientum (“servant, one who serves”).

In 1279, King Edward I of England formed a group of 20 men to act as the first royal bodyguard in England, Anglicizing the French sergent and naming them the Sergeants at Arms. The sergeants served various other functions for their king and counted among their responsibilities the arrest of traitors and the collection of debts. A little over a century later, the House of Commons received its own Sergeant at Arms* and since then, these officers have almost always been associated with legislative bodies.

Both houses of the United States Congress adopted the office of Sergeant at Arms in 1798. In the House of Representatives, the Sergeant at Arms’ chief task is maintaining order and decorum on the floor of the chamber. To that end, he is authorized to “display” the silver and ebony Mace of the United States House of Representatives – a visual reminder of Congress’ authority – as a warning to behave and use the mace in the aisles of the House Chamber to “subdue” disorderly conduct. Congress has also used the Sergeant at Arms as something of a bounty hunter/hall monitor in the past, dispatching him to retrieve absent representatives and bring them to House sessions, sometimes even escort them directly to their seat in the chamber.

The Sergeant at Arms’ role in the security of the House is reviewing and implementing security measures related to the Capitol and House Office Buildings. His office secures, limits access to, and performs sweeps of the House Floor and Gallery, oversees and secures the Visitors Desk and Parking Garage and administrates the distribution of all representatives’ and staff’s identification badges.

* There’s some debate over how Parliament got its own Sergeant at Arms. One theory holds that the appointment was a scheme concocted by the King to extend his power over the legislature. Another suggests that the officer was requested so that the legislators could enforce parliamentary privilege and have the Sergeant exercise royal authority through the instructions of the Speaker. Yet another says that since Parliament met at the King’s home, the Palace at Westminster, in its early days, His Majesty originally loaned some Sergeants out as door-keepers to the Parliamentary meetings.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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