13 Rules for Displaying the American Flag

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iStock

With Memorial Day, Independence Day, and a few others, there's no lack of patriotic holidays in the United States. But one in particular is all about the star spangled banner that flies o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Flag Day—June 14—is the official commemoration of the stars and stripes as the country's standard.

The flag was officially adopted on June 14, 1777 at the Second Continental Congress, and since then, Americans have flown it at their homes, written songs about it and a pledge to it, and emblazoned it on everything from sunglasses to swim trunks. An estimated 150 million American flags are sold every year, with 76 percent of Americans 65 years and older saying they or their family owns a flag. Even 62 percent of 18-24 year olds say they or their family owns one, according to the National Retail Federation [PDF].

Such an important emblem of American ideals brings with it strict decorum. In 1923, a group of organizations headed by the American Legion outlined the National Flag Code as a set of rules on how to correctly display the flag, which were then turned into law during World War II as the United States Flag Code [PDF]. There are some obvious stipulations, like making sure the flag never hits the ground. But there are some out-of-left-field requirements as well. For instance, per the code, the flag is to be considered a living thing.

Just in case you need a quick rundown of the flag dos-and-don'ts, here are some lesser-known rules for displaying the flag this Flag Day.

1. YOU CAN FLY THE FLAG UPSIDE DOWN.

A protester marches with an upside-down American flag.
A protester marches with an upside-down American flag.
Edward Linsmier, Getty Images

The code goes to extreme lengths to define the rules of the flag, especially with regard to the position of the "union," or the blue field with the 50 state stars, being in certain positions. Obviously the best way to fly the flag is on a pole with the union up, but you can also fly it upside down—with one catch: you have to be in some serious trouble to do so.

Fly the flag upside down only "as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property."

2. NO FLAG CAN HOLD PROMINENCE OVER THE AMERICAN FLAG—THOUGH THERE ARE TWO EXCEPTIONS.

American flag over white flag
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For Americans, Old Glory is tops when it comes to the flag-flying game. But despite the general rule that it should always be the most prominent, it's not always the most important.

Section 7 of the flag code decrees that no flag should be placed above the flag of the United States, but one exception is that the flag of the United Nations can be flown in a superior position, although only at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

One other exception involves a church's pennant being allowed to fly above the American flag during services performed by naval chaplains while at sea. As for your house? It looks like you should definitely make sure the American flag is up top.

3. YOU CAN FLY MULTIPLE COUNTRY FLAGS, BUT OLD GLORY GETS DIBS.

The American, Mexican, and Arizona flags hanging on poles.
Ken Bosma, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If, say, Mexican-Americans want to display their heritage with the stars and stripes and the bandera nacional together, both are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height, and they should be equal in size.

But on U.S. soil the American flag should always be placed in a position of honor, meaning fly the flag to its own right (the viewer's left). If you have a few different country flags, the flags should be raised and lowered at the same time.

4. OTHER FLAGS GET SIMILAR TREATMENT.

American flag and Texas flag
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Fly your gay pride flag, your Chicago Cubs "W" banner, a ceremonial POW flag, your state standard, or any other kind of banner all you want. But pair it with the American flag, and a few different rules must take effect.

The flag of the United States should be at the center and at the highest point when grouped together. If you put multiple flags on a halyard of your boat, the U.S. flag should always be at the top.

5. YOU CAN PUT THE FLAG ON YOUR VEHICLE, BUT ONLY IN A CERTAIN WAY.

The presidential motorcade shows the proper flag placement for the front of a car.
The presidential motorcade shows the proper flag placement for the front of a car.
TIM SLOAN, AFP/Getty Images

When you want to get patriotic on the go, the code specifies that the flag shouldn't be draped over any sort of means of transportation, be it car, motorcycle, train, boat, subway, dune buggy, or whatever. Instead, it should be either fixed on a pole to the chassis or clamped on the right fender.

6. DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT LAYING YOUR FLAG ON A PARADE FLOAT.

Participants on horseback hold U.S. flags during the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

Parades are a big part of American celebrations, and you'd better believe there are floats in those parades. These snail-paced, often extravagantly decorated vehicles might take ages to go a few blocks, but just because the flag might not catch wind doesn't mean it should be draped either. Treat a float like any other means of transportation and fly the flag vertically from a securely fastened staff.

If you're in a parade and carrying the flag in procession with other flags, the U.S. flag should be either on the marching right (like stage right) or in the front and center of the line.

7. YOU CAN FLY THE FLAG ALL YEAR ROUND IF IT'S NYLON.

Two flags hanging from houses on a quiet street.
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If a storm's coming, take down your flag. It's as easy as that. Despite the fact that the code says "the flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement," it does make an exception for "when an all weather flag is displayed."

An all-weather flag is one made from nylon, polyester, or other non-absorbent materials, which shouldn't be hard to find—most flags nowadays are meant to be flown outdoors and are made of all-weather materials. Best to leave that old cotton flag properly stored indoors.

8. GET THE UNION SIDE RIGHT WHEN HANGING THE FLAG FROM A WINDOW.

American flag hanging in the window of a Banana Republic
Mario Tama, Getty Images

When you don't have a flag pole at your disposal, you can just hang the flag—but make sure it's the right positioning. When displayed either horizontally against a wall or vertically hanging in a window, the union portion of the flag should be the uppermost part and to the flag's own right—that is, to the observer's left.

9. YOU CAN STILL FLY YOUR FLAG IN THE DARK.

American flag at night
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Lowering or taking down the flag at sunset isn't strictly enforced by the code, it's just a "universal custom." Yet when "a patriotic effect is desired," you can let that thing soar at all hours of the day and night so long as it's "properly illuminated" during the evening and hours of darkness.

10. YOU NEED TO BE GEOGRAPHICALLY INCLINED WITH YOUR STREET FLAG.

American flag on city street
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Cities and towns across the country might want to adorn their fair streets with the stars and stripes, but even that has a strict set of rules.

When a city wants to fly the flag over the middle of the street, it needs to be suspended vertically with the union side of the flag pointing north on an east/west street or to the east on a north/south street.

11. MISSING SOME STARS ON YOUR FLAG? NO PROBLEM.

American Revolutionary Flag
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Say you dig up a flag from before Hawaii and Alaska joined the United States. What's a person to do if they want to fly their throwback flag with only 48 stars? Unless you are an official curator of a museum of American history, you will be fined. Just kidding—display your historical flag with pride.

The 50-star flag is the official flag, designated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 (although the design wouldn't be official until July 4, 1960). But any personal flags lacking the full 50 stars may be displayed as long as they are in good condition, and they should be treated with the same respect and rules as the official flag.

12. MAKE SURE TO DISPLAY IT DURING PARTICULAR DAYS.

house with Americana
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You don't necessarily have to mark your calendars since the code specifies how the flag "should be displayed on all days," but it does call out some highlights—so maybe mark your calendar after all.

Make sure to fly that flag on New Year's Day; Inauguration Day; Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday; Lincoln's birthday; Washington's birthday; National Vietnam War Veterans Day; 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."

13. YOUR RIGHTS TO FLY THE FLAG IN AN APARTMENT BUILDING ARE UNCERTAIN.

American flag on apartment building
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Sometimes it might seem a bit difficult to fly your flag when you live in a building with other tenants. The people in 3C could complain that the flag whipping in the wind is too loud or that it is obstructing their view. Most rental tenants and owners of co-ops and condominiums have to adhere to a certain set of ground rules that restricts flag-flying.

In general, your right to display the United States flag is protected by federal law via the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005. But it's not a complete protection. The law specifies that a condominium association, cooperative association, or residential real estate management association can put in "any reasonable restriction pertaining to the time, place, or manner of displaying the flag of the United States necessary to protect a substantial interest." So if the flag is a potential hazard or excessively restricts neighbors' views, you might be out of luck. It's also generally agreed that the law doesn't protect renters, adding an entirely different set of complications. You'll just have to figure out how to work around any confines your home happens to have.

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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