Okay, I’m back on my soapbox today. I’m here to try to set the country straight and it means I’ll probably step on some toes again. I am sure there are others who have made similar attempts. I’m not the first. But, like them, I am a traditionalist. You remember the song, Tradition, from Fiddler on the Roof, don’t you? “And how do we keep our balance?” asks Zero Mostel. “I can tell you in one word,” he says–“Tradition!” Now, when it comes to certain holidays, especially the patriotic ones, I went to the School of Normal Rockwell where I learned how to celebrate them. That said, here is my take on Memorial Day.
First of all, many of you have it all wrong. This is NOT a joyous occasion that we are celebrating this holiday weekend. What was called Decoration Day was established by a group of Union Army veterans in 1886 following the Civil War. The ex-soldiers thought it would be appropriate to set aside a day to honor those Americans who had died in service to their country. Veterans of the Confederate Army did likewise on a totally different day. Eventually, the two holidays merged into one, now called Memorial Day. It is held on the last Monday of May.
It is tradition that American military graves are decorated this day. Those in Federal cemeteries in the United States and abroad are usually adorned with a small American flags. When I was a kid I remember seeing lots of American flags on poles or draped from windowsills on Memorial Day. Almost every household displayed a flag—and I lived in a row-home neighborhood. Of course, World War II was still very fresh in the minds of Americans, especially anyone who had lost someone in the war. Most storefront windows also displayed flags back then, not sale signs. The President used to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. News coverage of the event was broadcast live, interrupting regularly scheduled programming. Nowadays, the Vice-President usually takes care of that task and you might see a fast clip of it on the evening news.
No shining academic record do I hold, but I cringe when I hear a young person today who does not know the difference between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, let alone any of the great conflicts that followed them. I am not making that up. I realize that I sound like an old curmudgeon when I criticize “these kids today” who have no concept of the sacrifice their forefathers made for them. There are many adults too who have gotten caught up in the redundancy of how Americans celebrate their historic events. As such, we treat all holidays pretty much the same: big retail sales, family gatherings and sporting events.
But wishing someone a “Happy Memorial Day” is…well, it’s just not correct. This is a sad day, a solemn day when Americans should take a formal, structured time-out to think about, and pay tribute to, the thousands who died so that we and many others who aren’t even Americans can continue living in a safe and free environment. A lot of that thought process has gone from the holiday. Memorial Day does not affect as many of us as it once did. It is no longer relatable to all of us. It is no longer as relevant. It is fast becoming a tradition lost…and it leaves us out of balance.