Today is a festive day here in the United States as all around the 50 states we celebrate the birthday of our nation with lots of traditional All-American parties. There are town picnics, featuring hamburgers, hot dogs, coleslaw, strawberry ice cream and blueberry pie, followed by a blaze of brilliant fireworks (I always enjoy watching the dazzling display over the National Mall in Washington, DC on television.) And of course there is much flag waving, with bright flashes of red, white and blue snapping in the summer breeze.
The sight of the Stars and Stripes sets many a heart aflutter. It’s a symbol of our country, and all the courage and sacrifices it’s taken to make it. In times of trouble, it’s a rallying point, reminding us of the elemental bonds that unite us despite our many differences.
Flags have long played a colorful role in history. (By the by, the study of flags is known as vexillology, from the Latin vexillum, which means flag or banner.) One of the earliest flags on record—albeit a bronze one—was unearthed in Iran and dates back to the third century BC. It’s assumed that it was used in military action, and indeed, most early flag were used on the battlefield to help the combatants identify who was friend and who was foe. Both the ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon mention the Achaemenid battle standards carried by the Persian armies. And a distinctive Dragon standard was carried by the mounted Sarmatian warriors of the steppes.
By the High Middle Ages, heraldic flags and banners became popular as it wasn’t easy to see the crest emblazoned on an individual’s knight’s shield during the heat of combat. As principalities, city states and cantons such as those of the Swiss confederacy arose, they too, began to design flags to herald their identity. Dukedoms, kingdoms, Empires . . . it became a matter of pride to have one’s own distinctive symbol of identity.
Some Random Flag Facts:
The flag of Denmark, known as the Dannebrog, dates back to the 13th century and is the oldest national flag still in use.
The flag of France was designed in 1794 and reflects the tricolor symbol of the French Revolution.
The flag of Nepal, the only national flag that is not a rectangular shape.
The first flag hoisted by general Washington over the Continental Army in January 1776 had thirteen red and white stripes and the Union Jack in the upper left hand corner. Now, we all know that later that year, Betsy Ross stitched up a new design with thirteen stars arranged in a circle to created a uniquely “American” look, free of British influence. In 1777, the Continental Congress confirmed the design as the official flag of the new nation passed the first Flag Act, which read “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”
Since then, the act has been amended several times to allow for additional stars to be added as new states came into the union. Today, "Old Glory" has thirteen stripes—seven red and six white—which represent the original thirteen colonies. Fifty white stars symbolizing the fifty states are arranged on the dark blue field in the upper left hand corner. The colors have meaning as well—red stands for hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and innocence and blue represents vigilance and justice.
So, that about sews up my brief overview on flags. But before I hoist a final salute to the Stars and Stripes on America’s birthday, I’ll end with a word of thanks for all the gifts that our country has given us. There are many things for which I am profoundly grateful, but perhaps most of all, I am glad to live in a land that gives us the freedom to think and to use our imagination without having to conform to any rigid set of rules. That’s something wonderful to celebrate in my book—let the fireworks begin!
What is it about America that you are most grateful for? And if you’re not American, what quality about the U.S. do you admire most? And lastly, to end on a party note, what’s your favorite All-American Fourth of July picnic staple? Mine is chocolate chip cookies!