Like any good American, I have a passing knowledge of what Memorial Day is about. I have been to picnics where veterans have been honored, where politicians have waxed philosophically about sacrifice and values and where the scent of hot dogs and hamburgers waft over the proceedings, driving everyone to distraction.
Memorial Day is about remembering those who have fallen defending our country, right?
Hmm… I have also heard that it is about remembering all of our people who have passed. And, of course, I have heard “I think it might have been… But, I am getting a beer. Want one?”
Well, in the spirit of being “mindful” (more on that in upcoming posts), I decided to do a little research to find out just why we have this long weekend filled with barbecue, beer and beaches to honor fallen soldiers.
The origins of Memorial Day date back to the War Between the States.
That time of such ideological confusion in our nation’s history that we forced “brother to fight brother”, as the old story goes. 750,000 people, or close to 10% of the American population, died in the conflict (NY Times).
Decoration Day celebrations began to appear in the spring in the North and the South to honor the soldiers who fell in battle. In May of 1868, three years after the end of the war, General John Logan officially consolidated the separate events into one national event, Memorial Day, at the Arlington National Cemetery, where flowers were laid on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
By 1890, all of the northern states had recognized the day. However, the southern states did not come on board until after World War I, when the event was changed from honoring soldiers who fell in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war. (Wikipedia)
The Uniform Holidays Bill
In 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays off of their traditional dates so that three day weekends could be created. They changed the traditional dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day, to create more three day holidays for federal employees (Wikipedia) and citizens.
The reasoning behind this act was threefold, according to the Congressional Record:
- “Three-day holidays offer greater opportunities for families—especially those whose members may be widely separated—to get together. . . .”
- “The three-day span of leisure time . . . would allow our citizens greater participation in their hobbies as well as in educational and cultural activities.”
- “Monday holidays would improve commercial and industrial production by minimizing midweek holiday interruptions of production schedules and reducing employee absenteeism before and after midweek holidays.”
But, what it did, some argue, is dilute the spirit of the original day. Most houses don’t have a flag to fly at half mast for half of the day (flag etiquette). While many people go to the cemeteries, attendance at these events is changing. Instead of remembering the people who fought and died, instead of quiet contemplation of what it means to physically take up arms and fight for your beliefs, we spend it doing other things.
What does it all mean?
This weekend, there are the picnics and barbecues, sponsored by your favorite beverages and supported by various commercial entities, from your local supermarket to the people who print red white and blue crepe paper streamers. There is the 96th running of the Indy500 race. There are arts events and music festivals, all branded with Memorial Day colors and slogans. There are sales at almost every major retail brand, in virtually every major industry.
A part of me argues that those other things that we do ARE a celebration of what the soldiers are fighting for: freedom to get together, reminisce over friends no longer there, and celebrate the life and relationships that we have today.
But, the other part of me says, “That doesn’t recall or recognize the fact that someone sacrificed their life in defense of our right to sit here and party.”
For me, while writing this, I started to recall the stories my great uncle Wash told me about being a belly gunner in a B-52 in World War II, of being shot down twice and spending time in a prisoner of war camp.
And, more currently, I am thinking about the people I have met and know, who are putting themselves into harms way: the lawyer in the firm that help us refinance our house, who is overseas now, the waitress who served my Mama D’s egg sandwich at my favorite morning spot, who went into the Navy, the son of a family friend who was, for a brief period, missing in action.
Interesting historical facts and moralistic philosophies aside…
A few questions popped up in my head while researching this holiday:
The evolution of the event went from remembering soldiers who fell during an internal conflict to those who fought defending the whole country. And, then it evolved into an opportunity for freedom from work (except for those who are scheduled to work in retail that weekend), to party, to shop, to consume.
As technology continues to democratize the world and seems to be eroding the very idea of physical nations, will Memorial Day evolve into a remembrance of those citizens of the world who fell for world peace?
Or, will it evolve into a celebration of those who have fallen defending a multinational corporation, a la William Gibson‘s fictional cyber punk vision of the future?
What do you think of your long weekend?
How do you think it will evolve?
How do you plan to celebrate next year?