One day last week, I glanced out my window and noticed a flag flying at half-mast above the pastel, wooden row houses across our street. It’s mostly young families with school-aged children who live in those hundred or so apartments, so it was mildly shocking to see that someone apparently had passed away over there.
It also got me to thinking about the differences in flag customs between the US and here in Finland, where the death of ordinary citizens -- not only presidents -- is honored by lowering the flag at their homes. To me, the most striking difference has to do with, as in so many other things, emotion and the public display of affection -- in this case, for a piece of colorful cloth.
I know how emotional and sensitive people can be about flags. After all, I come from a state – Georgia -- that went through a big kerfuffle a few years ago over the issue of removing the Confederate Battle Flag (that old “rebel” banner) from our state flag. Georgia had added this emblem of the Confederacy -- familiar even to folks here in Finland -- to its flag in the year of my birth, just as the civil rights movement was taking off. It served as a none-too-subtle reminder in those turbulent times of where Georgia stood on the issue of racial segregation, and it shamefully remained part of the flag for 45 years before decency finally prevailed.
The fact that some Americans could be so resistant to the removal of an emblem that led armies into bloody battles against the United States goes to show how strong – even surprising – are the passions that flags can inspire. (The controversy over cleansing the Georgia flag of Confederate symbolism probably led to the Democratic governor who spearheaded the campaign subsequently losing his job.)
Clearly, Americans take flags seriously, and while other nations might be as passionate about their flags, I imagine most are not as conspicuous about it as the US. When traveling in the States after a long absence, I’m always impressed how you’re almost never out of sight of the Stars and Stripes, whether it’s emblazoned on roadside advertisements, plastered as decals on cars, or even suspended off freeway overpasses.
I guess it’s always been that way. From thirty years back I can recall the gigantic American flags – large enough to cover a dozen stretch limos – that used to tower over certain car dealerships, apparently to reassure even the most near-sighted patriotic car buyer that this was indeed an American place of business.
This profusion of flag-waving seems to have only become more intensive in recent years. I imagine it has to do with the mood of the nation after 9/11 and the way Americans rallied around the country following that horrible day.
But as someone living overseas I’m sometimes surprised by the lengths it has gone to. Watching a college football game on TV recently, I noticed that the referees were wearing American flag patches on their uniforms. That struck me as a bit odd, as if anyone in a position of any kind of authority has now been inducted into the ranks of US “officialdom”. It’s not as if anyone watching a game between Oregon and Washington played on American soil would doubt for an instant that these are Americans officiating the game. Are only quasi-authority figures, like referees, expected to wear the flag these days, or is it anyone wearing a uniform? Do UPS drivers wear them? Maybe they do.
Of course, there’s nothing strange – and certainly nothing wrong -- in displaying the flag and showing support for your country, especially in times of war. I have a small American flag hanging in my den, bought at the Ace Hardware in my hometown of Ellijay. But I have to say that the unapologetic, and very public, veneration of the flag in the States sets the US apart from many other countries, where the need to flaunt your patriotism is not felt nearly so strongly.
Finland is one such country. I feel pretty sure that most Finns are no less patriotic than Americans. After all, it is still within living memory that Finland fought for its very survival against the Soviets, so the sense of nationhood is very real here.
Still, true to their low-key nature, Finns generally don’t wear their patriotism on their sleeves. “Flag waving” here is, in fact, a quite regimented affair, as you might expect in a somewhat conformist society like this. Many commercial and residential buildings have flag poles, and so do quite a few private homes. (We had our own 20-foot pole before we had to take it down when we built an extension to our house and turned our yard into a construction site.)
But while anyone is free to fly the flag any time – and many do for private celebrations like birthdays – it’s unusual to see the flag except on the 20 or so designated “flag days”. These are national holidays such as May Day and Independence Day, not to mention Mother’s Day. And, my personal favorite Father’s Day -- which happens to be today. (While Mother’s Day here is the same as in the States, the Finns have wisely put some distance between it and Father’s Days.)
Because many of the other “flag days” commemorate various statesmen or literary figures from Finland’s past, they tend to be a bit obscure and hard to remember even, I dare say, for some Finns and particularly for an American. This is why in the past on, for example, United Nations Day, we (meaning me) would often forget to raise our flag on time (at the prescribed 8:00 AM) or even not at all, making me feel like a neighborhood pariah. So, I’m not entirely unhappy we no longer have a flagpole in our yard – who needs that kind of pressure?