How to display a U.S. flag

Today is the start of National Flag Week, and I just discovered I’ve been wrong about how to display the U.S. flag.

I was a mission today, to find a flag bigger than the child-sized handheld ones you see along parade routes, but small enough that I could attached it to the railing of my balcony and let it fly. As I drove from store to store, I kept hearing the same news story — how to properly dispose of an unwanted or damaged flag. For the record, the flag is apparently meant to be cut, and then burned, according to certain ceremonial procedures. I came away with the impression that it’s best in these circumstances to just contact the Boy Scouts — they know what to do.

However, the reporter never mentioned the correct way to display the flag, and I kept catching snippets of people’s conversations in the stores, with comments ranging from whether the flag could be flown at night to how best to combine it with another country’s flag.

So I came home and did some snooping on the Internet. And found that my understanding of how to display the flag in certain situtaions was completely incorrect.

The flag should be illuminated when flown at night.

I think most people know this one. It was also the subject of a very funny conversation overheard at a Home Depot.

A couple was looking at various types of solar lights. I assumed they wanted them to light up their patio or walkway, but they kept arguing about how much light they needed and how high up the lights would shine. Then I heard the woman tell her husband “I told you that pole was too tall!” Seems he got a little ambitious with the height of their flagpole; none of the lights stocked at the store would shine high enough to illuminate the flag.

Drive in the Philadelphia suburbs and you’ll see a lot of places with flags flying in the night. Not just police and fire departments, township offices and schools, but apartment complexes, churches and many private homes. I pass a very patriotic house on my drive back from work — not only does the homeowner have what looks to be at least six floodlights shining on the large flag before his house, he’s also wound red-white-and-blue rope lights around the flagpole for added emphasis!

The flag should not be flown in inclement weather.

I was wrong about this one, but frankly, this rule makes no sense to me.

The rule says the flag should not be subjected to weather damage, and so only weatherproofed flags should be flown in bad weather. But think about it for a minute. The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem, celebrates our flag’s ability to continue flying throughout a night filled with a massive British artillery bombardment. Come on, what’s a little rain or snow compared with the fire, smoke and shrapnel generated by cannon shells? Yet, the rule says we should remove our flags in the face of inclement weather unless they are weatherproofed.

People do take down their flags, but usually only when a hurricane is approaching, along with removing anything else that could become an airborne projectile in high winds. It’s a sensible precaution — when I lived in Massachusetts, a flag pole snapped in high wind during a nor’easter and ended up punching through my apartment wall. But as a general matter, people seem to leave their flags up through rainstorms and blizzards, regardless of whether they’re the weatherproof variety. I’ve noticed several homes that have replaced their flags this spring, after the old flags were flwon through the winter storms.

The flag does not need to be higher than the flags of other nations.

I was wrong about this one, too.

Growing up, I can remember my uncle and grandfather muttering whenever they saw the U.S. flag mixed in with other flags. “No respect” was the politest phrase they would use. They were particularly incensed when the other flags were the same height as the U.S. flag, so, naturally, I believed that the U.S. flag’s pole should always be higher than the poles bearing other country’s flags.

Nope. I checked several websites, including the site maintained by the Veterans Administration. The pole holding the U.S. flag does not need to be higher than other poles. It should be on the right-hand side, if there is a group of flags, but the height doesn’t need to be greater than that of the other flagpoles in the group. In fact, two websites (including the VA site) mentioned that it’s international custom to have all the flagpoles be the same height in times of peace.

The flag should always be on the right-hand side.

I wasn’t aware this was a rule, but thinking about my neighborhood, I can see that most people follow it already.

The U.S. flag, when displayed crossed with another flag, should always be placed on the right-hand side of the display, with its pole in front of the pole holding the other flag.

In this area, a lot of people display the U.S. flag along with another flag, such as the flag for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The “Don’t Tread on Me!” flag is also quite popular, for some reason. And of course, people celebrate their ethnic heritage by displaying the flag of the country from which they, or their ancestors, came — Ireland, Italy, Mexico and, surprisingly, Canada appear to be extremely popular places of origin for my neighbors. And in every display that I can recall, the U.S. flag is always on the right-hand side.

Never use the flag as bunting.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone try to use the U.S. flag as a simple decoration.

Drive anywhere in this area and you’ll see the U.S. flag adorning railings, fences and doors, either hanging straight down or unfurled and stretched out to be fully visible. I didn’t know that, while you can hang the flag in this way, it must always be unfurled, and should never be displayed in a folded or bundled manner. Every website I visited made the same point: bunting is available for use in patriotic draped decorations. The flag is not a decoration, it is a symbol, an emblem, of the country.

So there are the most common rules for displaying the U.S. flag. That said, I still didn’t succeed in today’s quest. Every store I went to seemed to have two sizes of flags — a sea of the child-sized hand-held ones, and shelves of extremely-large flags meant to grace the flagpoles of suburban Philadelphia. Perhaps when we get closer to Independence Day I’ll find one suitable for my balcony.

I just have to remember to bring it in at night.

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