How to Fly the American Flag

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iStock

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.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

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iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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