Monday, March 25, 2013

Flags - Colorful Symbols of Humanity

In the United States, June 14th is Flag Day. It commemorates the original adoption of the U.S. flag back in 1777 by the Second Continental Congress. It was President Woodrow Wilson's 1916 proclamation that would solidify June 14th as National Flag Day, but it wasn't until 1949 that congress enacted its actual observance. While not an official federal holiday, one state, Pennsylvania, celebrates Flag Day as a state holiday. And Troy, NY, home of Uncle Sam, hosts the county's largest Flag Day Parade, typically drawing 50,000 revelers each year.

Because the 14th seldom falls on a weekend, the National Flag Day Foundation holds an annual observance for Flag Day on the second Sunday in June. The festivities include a ceremonial flag raising, Pledge of Allegiance recital, singing of the National Anthem ("The Star-spangled Banner"), and a parade. Later, during the last week of June, National Flag Week sees the president issuing a proclamation urging U.S. citizens to fly the American flag for the duration of that week.

On a global level, every country has a flag, and most countries honor their flag with a Flag Day. Typically, a Flag Day is a day designated for flying a national flag, or a day set aside to celebrate a historical event such as a nation's adoption of its flag. Flag Day customs and celebrations range from merely suggesting citizens fly the national flag on a particular day to requiring governmental offices to fly the flag half-staff. Flag Days, depending on the country, are generally 'codified' in decrees by heads of state, or in written statutes.

The U.S. is not the only country to honor Flag Day in June. Argentina celebrates their Flag Day, or Día de la Bandera, on June 20th, which is the anniversary of the death of Manuel Belgrano, the creator of Argentina's flag. Also, Peru recognizes their Día de la Bandera on June 7, commemorating the anniversary of the Battle of Arica. And finally, Sweden's Flag Day, Svenska Flaggans Dag, has been held on June 6th since the late 19th Century. Because each country's Flag Day is usually inspired by its own historical events, there is no universal or internationally recognized Flag Day or month. For instance, Mexico's Día de la Bandera falls on February 24. The day honors General Vicente Guerrero, first to pledge allegiance to the Mexican flag. Also, Italy's Festa del Tricolore (Festival of the Tricolor) is celebrated on January 7th, and commemorates their flag's adoption in 1797. And the Canadian province of Quebec commemorates their Jour du Drapeau on January 21, remembering the first flying of their flag in 1948.

Flags are a vital part of world history. The first type of flag was called a vexilloid, and 'vexillology' is the scientific study of flags. The root of the word vexilloid comes from a Latin word meaning "guide." Originally, vexilloids were metal or wooden poles with carvings on top. About 2,000 years ago, pieces of fabric were added to some vexilloids for decoration, leading to what we know today as a typical flag. Although specific flag uses and purposes have differed throughout history, flags have always been a means of visual communication, often used when attempts at verbal communication are apt to break down.

Historically, there have been some very interesting uses for flags. In medieval times, when gallant knights wore so much armor that they were unrecognizable, flags were flown in battle to allow armies to tell friend from foe. Later, the "White Flag of Surrender" was established as the international sign for surrender. Soldiers flying a white flag are generally not fired upon. Because white flags are not intentionally made in advance of a battle, they are often fashioned out of any available materials right on the battlefield, adding even more drama to the situation. And finally, perhaps the most cherished and recognized international flag is known as the "Jolly Roger." Also referred to as 'skull and crossbones,' the black flag, emblazoned with skeletons and swords, was used by pirates to warn and/or frighten unfortunate sailors. Anyone seeing a pirate flag on the horizon knew that they were subject to "no quarter," and either needed to flee or prepare to fight to the death on the high seas.

This June, Americans, Argentineans, Peruvians, and Swedes will be flying their flags in honor of their country's Flag Day. Throughout the year, the rest of the world will follow suit at some point, and commemorate the colorful symbols that signify various historic events, cultural values, and community bonds. Humanity is based on communication, and flags are one of our oldest forms of bridging the many gaps in our global tongues.

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