Reading Time: 4 minutes

candycane350I like stories. I like reality. I don’t so much like stories posing as reality.

Two different parents wrote to me recently about a Veteran’s Day flag-folding ceremony in their children’s public school. The ceremony in both cases was filled to the gills with religious language. A few excerpts:

The flag folding ceremony represents the same religious principles on which our country was originally founded…In the Armed Forces of the United States, at the ceremony of retreat the flag is lowered, folded in a triangle fold and kept under watch throughout the night as a tribute to our nation’s honored dead. The next morning it is brought out and, at the ceremony of reveille, run aloft as a symbol of our belief in the resurrection of the body…

-The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life.
-The second fold is a symbol of our belief in eternal life.

-The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance.

-The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.
-When the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, “In God we Trust.”

My correspondents had reasonable concerns about the separation of church and state. Me too. But I had just as much concern about the separation of fiction and reality.

If there’s an original meaning to the flag-folding ceremony, that’d be interesting to know. Less interesting is learning what someone somewhere dreamt up and applied ex post facto. And that’s what happened here, according to both Snopes and the U.S. Air Force, whence the religiously-saturated ceremony is falsely said to have sprung.

By 2005, the Air Force (apparently tired of having this ceremony falsely attributed to it) wrote a script of their own. “We have had a tradition within the Air Force of individuals requesting that a flag be folded, with words, at their retirement ceremony,” said the USAF protocol chief in the Air Force Print News. The article continues:

This new script was prepared by Air Force services to provide Air Force-recognized words to be used at those times…Individuals who hear [other] scripts end up attributing the contents of the script to the U.S. Air Force. But the reality is that neither Congress nor federal laws related to the flag assign any special meaning to the individual folds. “Our intent was to move away from giving meaning, or appearing to give meaning, to the folds of the flag and to just speak to the importance of the flag in U.S. Air Force history,” he said.

The new script replaces unconstitutional Christian triumphalism with entirely constitutional nationalistic triumphalism. An improvement, I guess — at least in public schools.

The new script includes actual footnotes. References to the flag’s role in the Battle of Baltimore, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the moon landing lead to my favorite:

3Based on historical facts.

I wished I’d known about that source in grad school.

Another parent email:

My son came home from (public) first grade today and told me that they read the legend of the candy cane at school. He told me, “It’s about Jesus.”

Ring a bell? You may have seen this one in your inbox:

A Candymaker in Indiana wanted to make a candy 

that would be a witness, so he made the Christmas Candy Cane. He 

incorporated several symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of 

Jesus Christ. He began with a pure white, hard candy. White to 

symbolize the Solid Rock, the foundation of the church, and the 

firmness of the promises of God. 

The candymaker made the candy in the form of a ‘J’ to represent the 

precious name of Jesus, who came to earth as our Saviour.

Red stands for what it always stands for in these things — hemoglobin. The tale goes on, but you can already smell the ex post facto. And sure enough, Snopes has this one debunked as well.

Incredibly, there was a court case about the candy cane legend in schools. A Michigan teacher asked his fifth graders to develop products as a class assignment. One student sold candy canes with the “J is for Jesus” story attached.

A skittish administrator said it constituted religious literature and pulled the project. The boy’s family sued, and a federal judge ruled that the boy’s rights had been violated. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.

Obviously I don’t know the details, but I can’t imagine what the Appeals court was thinking. A teacher reading a book about the candy cane as a tribute to Jesus presents a problem. But a student expressing religious convictions in school is protected speech and has nothing whatsoever to do with government endorsement of a particular religious perspective.

But again, it’s not just the church-state thing for me, but the preference of pretty fictions over mere reality. That’s Romanticism, the declaration that reality just isn’t good enough. Whether it’s candy canes or something Lincoln or Voltaire or Margaret Mead supposedly said, or whether Jesus actually secured us an afterlife option — well two, if you think of it — I’d rather see the world as it is than imagine it as I’d like it to be. Period.

The best epiphany I ever had during my teaching career was that the history of music, the arts, even of culture itself, can be effective understood as a struggle between Enlightenment and Romanticism. The current “culture war” fits nicely into that paradigm.

Inspired by flags and candy canes, I’ll start the New Year with a short series on romanticism, and why I so bloody frigginly hate it.

Ah, but there’s plenty of time for frothing later. First, have a Merry Krismas!

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.