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How to Fly the American Flag

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Flag Day is June 14. We thought it might be a good time to take a look at the rules for respectfully displaying the American flag. Let’s dig into the United States Flag Code.

When did these rules fall into place?
Surprisingly late in American history. On Flag Day in 1923, a group of organizations headed by the American Legion outlined the National Flag Code as a set of advisory rules for displaying the flag. These rules became law during World War II and form the bulk of what’s now the United States Flag Code.

These rules cover all manner of extremely specific situations, but they’re all governed by the same basic principle: the flag is one of the most visible and important symbols of our country, so we should treat it with respect.

When is it acceptable to fly the flag upside down?
The flag code allows for flying the flag with the union (the blue field of stars) down only "as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property."

We know that the American flag is supposed to be displayed in a position of prominence over other flags on American soil. Are there any exceptions to this rule?
Section 7 of the flag code provides one major exception: the flag of the United Nations can be flown in the position of honor or prominence at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

The only other exception involves church services performed by naval chaplains while at sea. In these instances, the church’s flag may fly above the American flag during the service.

Are you really supposed to lower the flag at sunset?
You don’t have to. While the flag code notes that displaying the flag only from sunrise to sunset is "universal custom," it makes an exception: “However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.”

When should the flag be displayed?
Section 6 of the flag code states, "The flag should be displayed on all days." However, the code goes on to say that the flag should especially (emphasis added) be displayed on the following days: New Year’s Day; Inauguration Day; Martin Luther King Jr. Day; Lincoln’s birthday; Washington’s birthday; Easter; Mother’s Day; Armed Forces Day; Memorial Day; Flag Day; Father’s Day; Independence Day; National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day; Labor Day; Constitution Day; Columbus Day; Navy Day; Veterans Day; Thanksgiving; Christmas; state holidays; states’ dates of admission; and "such other days as may be proclaimed by the President of the United States."

But the same section also specifies that "the flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed." (The American Legion suggests that all-weather means nylon or similar materials.) The flag code is silent as to what to do if there’s going to be a storm on Independence Day, but since most flags for outdoor use are nowadays made of nylon or polyester, the issue shouldn't come up (but maybe leave the cotton flag indoors).

Where should the flag be displayed?
Section 6 of the flag code covers this question, too. The flag should be displayed in or near every schoolhouse on school days, on or near the main administration building of every public institution each day, and in or near every polling place on election days.

Why doesn't, say, the Dream Team take the courts in American-flag jerseys at the Olympics?
The flag code thought of that one, too. Section 8 of the code covers "Respect for [the] Flag," and it explicitly states, "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations."

Any other restrictions on wearing the flag?
According to Section 8, "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery." (The section also states that the flag shouldn't be used "for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever," or printed on paper napkins or anything “designed for temporary use and discard.”)

What about those American flag lapel pins that so many folks wear?
The flag code thought of that one, too. Section 8 rather elegantly states, "The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart."

Is it true you have to retire and burn a flag that touches the ground?
No, that’s a myth. The flag code is quite a bit more realistic about this situation. While the code states, "The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise," there’s no rule saying that a flag that slips has to immediately be burned.

Instead, the code stipulates, "The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning." Unless hitting the ground once renders the flag unfit for display, there’s no need to burn it.

What’s the penalty for breaking the flag code?
There generally isn’t one. The flag code is an odd duck in this regard. As part of the United States Code, the flag code is technically federal law. But unless you live in Washington, D.C., the code doesn't outline any measures for enforcement or punishment. (More on that in a bit.) Basically, the flag code is a set of advisory rules for Americans who want to know the proper and respectful way to display their flag.

Individual states used to have their own prohibitions on and penalties for desecrating the flag, but the 1989 Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson invalidated these laws as infringements on free speech. Congress responded by passing the Flag Protection Act, which made flag desecration a federal crime. The Supreme Court struck down this law in the 1990 case United States v. Eichman.

For those who live in the District of Columbia, Section 3 (which some place as part of the flag code, while others don’t [PDF]) places restrictions on the use of the flag for advertising and sets out a punishment of "a fine not exceeding $100 or by imprisonment for not more than thirty days, or both." While it's unclear if anyone has been prosecuted by this law, as the Congressional Research Service explained a few years ago, "status of these statutes and cases can not be taken for granted in light of Eichman and Johnson [PDF]."

Can anyone stop me from displaying the flag?
In 2006 the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005 officially became law. This law basically says that no condo board, housing co-op, or residential real estate management group can restrict a person’s right to display the American flag on their own residential property as long as the display jibes with federal law and is reasonable.

What days is the flag always flown at half-staff?
The flag always flies on half-staff on Patriot Day (September 11 of each year), Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7), and on all Federal buildings for the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service (the first Sunday in October). On Memorial Day, the flag flies at half-staff until noon, at which point it is raised to the top of the staff.

What if I can’t fly my flag at half-staff?
Some flags, like the ones commonly seen in school classrooms or on houses, are fixed in a certain position on their poles. How does one handle the sticky situation of a flag that physically can’t be flown at half-staff? The United States Code doesn't cover this conundrum, but the American Legion advocates adding a black ribbon to the top of the flag’s pole to indicate mourning.

What about adding new stars for new states?
Should we ever pick up a 51st state, Section 2 of the flag code stipulates that the state will get a new star on the flag. It won’t be an overnight process, though. The new star will make its debut on the first Fourth of July following the state’s formal admission into the union.

This article originally appeared in 2011.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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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holidays
10 Things You Might Not Know About Chinese New Year
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Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning February 16, China will welcome the Year of the Dog, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. THE HOLIDAY WAS ORIGINALLY MEANT TO SCARE OFF A MONSTER.

Nian at Chinese New Year
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As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A LOT OF FAMILIES USE IT AS MOTIVATION TO CLEAN THE HOUSE.

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While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. IT WILL PROMPT BILLIONS OF TRIPS.

Man waiting for a train.
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Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. IT INVOLVES A LOT OF SUPERSTITIONS.

Colorful pills and medications
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While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. SOME PEOPLE RENT BOYFRIENDS OR GIRLFRIENDS TO SOOTHE PARENTS.

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In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. RED ENVELOPES ARE EVERYWHERE.

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An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. IT CAN CREATE RECORD LEVELS OF SMOG.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
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Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. BLACK CLOTHES ARE A BAD OMEN.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
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So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. IT LEADS TO PLANES BEING STUFFED FULL OF CHERRIES.

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Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand—last year Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. PANDA EXPRESS IS HOPING IT'LL CATCH ON IN THE STATES.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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