Many Americans routinely spend their three-day holiday weekends with family, sometimes traveling or just gathering for a special meal or picnic. Many others go shopping because retailers looovvvvveee to run sales during a holiday weekend. Such are the activities of many Americans this weekend as we honor Memorial day. Notice I said “honor” Memorial Day, not “celebrate.” “Celebrate” is not the correct term for this particular holiday. Few Americans understand that.
Each year at this time, I hop up on my soapbox to remind many in the younger generations, and I’m sorry to say some of my peers too, why “Happy Memorial Day” is simply not the proper greeting to use for this holiday. With that in mind, here is my annual posting for Memorial Day…
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 observe 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 honoring this holiday weekend. What was originally called Decoration Day was established by a group of Union Army veterans in 1886 following the Civil War. The former 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 flag. When I was a kid in the 1950’s, I remember seeing lots of American flags on Memorial day. They were hung on poles or were draped from window sills, porch railings and anything else that one could be tied to. Almost every household displayed a flag—and I lived in a row-home neighborhood so you can just imagine the sea of red white and blue that ran endlessly down the blocks, one after the other. 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.
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. Think about it. If your neighbor recently lost a son or daughter in Afghanistan, would you feel comfortable wishing them a “happy” Memorial Day? 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 protected and free environment. Unfortunately, a lot of that thought process has gone from this holiday. Memorial Day does not impact 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, as Zero Mostel said, out of balance.