CLOSE
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

A Brief History of Flag Day

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Ingloriously crammed between the summer’s other two big holidays – that would be Memorial Day and Labor Day – Flag Day doesn’t tend to get much respect. Perhaps things would be different if we got the day off, or if there was any kind of actual glamour surrounding the holiday, perhaps the advent of a signature Flag Day snack or cocktail? Or maybe Flag Day just needs something simple – like a brief history  to help contextualize it against the backdrop of summer’s better-known holidays.

What Is Flag Day?

Before we go digging for some Flag Day dirt, it seems prudent to address just what the holiday is actually meant to celebrate. Every June 14th, the United States doesn’t just celebrate the flag as a single entity; it actually celebrates the adoption of the flag itself, which happened nice and early in American history – June 14, 1777. Basically, Flag Day is the birthday of the American flag. Please don’t celebrate with candles and cake.

Flag Day’s Unfailing Supporters

Getty Images

You’d think that getting a holiday to honor the most recognizable symbol of America, the Stars and Stripes, would be pretty easy. Sadly, you’d be wrong. Although the flag was adopted as the country’s official banner in 1777, it took nearly one hundred and fifty years for it to get its own holiday, something that a lot of people worked to make happen.

There’s some debate over who first suggested the holiday – one story holds that, in 1861, Hartford, Connecticut resident George Morris suggested the idea, which then led to a formal observance of the day (June 14th) in his hometown.

Other sources claim that it was B.J. Cigrand who invented Flag Day when the schoolteacher had his Wisconsin class celebrate it in 1885 at the Stony Hill School. Even if Cigrand didn’t really think up the day, he became its poster boy (he’s still known as “the Father of Flag Day”) and its biggest supporter, traveling around the country to chat up groups about the need for an official Flag Day and other ways to be patriotic. Cigrand eventually became editor-in-chief of American Emblem magazine, a publication dedicated to, well, American emblems. Later, Cigrand became the president of the American Flag Day Association and the National Flag Day Society.

In 1893, Pennsylvania resident (and Benjamin Franklin descendent) Elizabeth Duane Gillespie tried to get a state resolution passed that required the flag to be put on display in each of Philadelphia’s public buildings.

The next year, Flag Day was celebrated in Chicago, and the highly successful event was repeated the year after that. Flag Day was catching on!

In 1889, another schoolteacher, New York City’s George Balch, had his class celebrate Flag Day on June 14th, an idea that proved popular enough to be adopted by the State Education Board of New York for the whole state.

In 1907, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks officially designated June 14th as Flag Day, and the fraternal order and social club has celebrated it every year since (in 1911, they even made it mandatory for all Lodges to observe it, that’s how serious they are about Flag Day). The Elks even pushed the sitting President to give Flag Day some official status, which finally happened in 1916.

Why Don't We Get Flag Day Off?

Thinkstock

President Woodrow Wilson issued the proclamation that created the official holiday we know as “Flag Day,” way back in 1916. Yet the holiday didn’t become a national one until 1949, when an Act of Congress turned the day into “National Flag Day.” Ever wonder why we don’t get Flag Day off? Because it’s not a federal holiday, most of which are celebrated by the glory of a free day from work and school.

If you live in Pennsylvania or New York, though, your Flag Day experience might be a bit different – Pennsylvania adopted Flag Day as a state holiday back in 1937, and New York has designated the second Sunday of June as the official state holiday celebration of Flag Day.

The Army Connection

The flag shares its birthday with another important American institution – the United States Army, which was created as the “American Continental Army” by the same Second Continental Congress that passed the resolution to adopt the new flag.

Celebrating the Holiday

Thinkstock

What’s the best way to celebrate Flag Day? By flying your flag, of course! The week of June 14th is officially “National Flag Week,” and all U.S. citizens are encouraged to fly their flag for at least part of the period. You can get more serious with a parade or another fun event, as long as the flag is present and appropriately cared for and flown.

Want to really do up this Flag Day? Go visit the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia or Cigrand’s old school in Wisconsin, which has been fully restored to reflect the time period during which he supposedly thought up the holiday.

Other People’s Flags

Thinkstock

America is, of course, not the only country to celebrate the creation of their flag with an official Flag Day – Australia’s Flag Day is in September, Argentina also celebrates in June, and Canada honors their own maple leaf the day after Valentine’s Day.

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios