There are some holidays that we attach meanings to that have nothing to do with the holiday itself. For example, we recognize colored eggs and bunnies as signifying Easter; giving gifts to each other and decorating trees in our homes as signs of Christmas; and Labor Day, strange as it may seem, as representing the end of summer — which, on that day, has over two more weeks to go. But that is not as strange as what Memorial Day signifies to many people — the unofficial start of summer — which has three more weeks to go before it is the first full day of summer.
Since the actual solstice this year commences at 11:32 p.m., EST, which is on a Sunday, some people will say June 20 is the start of summer while others will go with June 21, the first full day of summer. But this column is not about the start of summer — or not — it’s about a holiday that may be fading away for any number of reasons.
When we remember someone’s birthday, do we focus on the birthday cake or the present we may give the birthday person… or do we rather think of what that person means to us and revel in letting the person know how much we’re glad they’re in our life and are happy to celebrate with them and tell them so? And when we remember the anniversary of a loved one’s passing, do we think about the possible lunch or dinner we’ll have after the funeral or memorial service, or do we dwell on the meaning they had in our life, the happy times we had with them, and how much we loved them?
We can’t help wondering why many Americans today may not even be able to tell their children or their friends what Memorial Day means to them. They may not remember (not that they have to) that when it was first celebrated back on May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, NY, following a suggestion to do so from a druggist who felt that those who died in the just-ended war with the South should not be forgotten, but honored for their many sacrifices to the death, local residents decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers and the village itself came alive with signs of their sorrow, even to flying their flags at half-staff and displaying Black steamers here and there. And solemn services were not confined to churches, but were conducted at the village’s only three cemeteries. Hence, the name “Decoration Day” took hold when Gen. John A. Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order establishing that day as a national day of recognition to honor those who died in the Civil War.
During this same time period, and even while the war was still raging, there were groups of women who organized events in the South to commemorate the Confederate dead. When men and boys fight for their cause, even if they are not fully aware of the political or other ramifications of that cause, those who fall are just as dead as those who fought on the other side.
While the name of the day was changed to Memorial Day 16 years later, in 1882, it took another 89 years before Congress officially established the last Monday in May as the federal holiday. It is usually, if not always, the locals, not the government, who think of honoring the dead and keeping their memory alive and just do it.
Today we know that Memorial Day commemorates all fallen veterans from all wars since it originated back in 1866; and we may know that on
November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a short, yet long-remembered speech at the end of the ceremonies in Gettysburg
dedicating part of that battlefield as a national cemetery, paying distinct tribute to the Union soldiers who sacrificed their lives for union and equality.
Memorial Day used to be commemorated with wreaths and flowers and flags being profusely seen at veterans’ gravesites in their local cemeteries. In addition to that, living veterans would march through their towns to the cemeteries, followed by civilians, before Memorial Day parades became more popular. Back then, such commemorations of the day were categorized as “American sacred ceremonies,” rites that were not only acceptable and honored, but which also validated this country as what we always considered it to be: the “defender of democraic principles around the world.”
Can we not return, at least consciously on Memorial Day, to caring about those who have fallen in defense of our freedom — and celebrate summer later on, when it shows up on its own day?