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.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

Christmas Lyrics Match-Up

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