In the lead up to this weekend, advertising campaigns blast consumers with well-wishes of a “Happy Memorial Day” and encourage folks to use their three-day weekends to spend, spend, spend. Grills shed their winter coverings, the pool covers come off, and the folding chairs hit the lawn for “the fourth of July in May.” Amid the noise, it has become easy and standard to forget what Memorial Day means for the country and the people who have someone to remember.
Losing Sight of Memorial Day
History of the Holiday
The practices surrounding Memorial Day stretch back to the early days of our country, before the American Civil War. The practice of dedicating one day a year to decorating the graves of fallen soldiers, though not a new concept by any means, grew popular in the American South and in the Appalachians as a way for communities to honor their dead and reunite with their relatives in memory of those that had been lost. Family members would travel long distances to gather and share their collective memories of the deceased. Naturally, where there was family, there would also be food, and the close association of Memorial Day with potluck-style gatherings has carried itself into the modern celebration.
After the Civil War, the practice of gathering to decorate cemeteries became increasingly common, and the ceremonial aspects of the day grew more focused. Between 1861 and 1864, four cities across the eastern United States held the earliest makings of Memorial Days. Eventually, the practice of gathering annually to honor the fallen at their graves became a common enough occurrence to warrant national recognition.
The Three-Day Weekend
In 1968, Congress moved to pass the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This law sought to move the national observances of several federal holidays from their traditionally fixed dates to a designated Monday within each holiday’s respective month. For Memorial Day, this moved the holiday’s observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act was designed to favor federal workers by increasing the number of resulting three-day weekends. The Act was pushed for heavily by the National Association of Travel Organizations to increase opportunities for American consumers to travel.
The move was regarded as largely unpopular among veterans organizations, and some have even identified the Uniform Monday Holiday Act as the reason that Memorial Day fails to garner the same reverence as Veterans Day. In 2002, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, opponents of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, stated that “[changing] the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
Memorial Day and Veterans Day
Memorial Day is often mistakenly conflated with its autumnal counterpart, Veterans Day. The conflation of the two holidays has further contributed to a general watering-down of the holiday’s core meaning and purpose. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, “Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle.” The VA acknowledges that while Veterans Day is not meant to exclude those who have died, the intent of the fall holiday is to honor and thank living veterans for their service to the country.
Jack Lynch, USMC Ret. Sgt. characterized the holidays as such in a statement for LWOS Life:
“The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day is simple. Veterans Day is a day where we go out, get free food, enjoy the attention for a job that we do willingly. Memorial Day only matters to people that have served in combat or people that have a close relationship with a loved one who is [killed in action]. These people carry on the tradition of Memorial Day every day for the rest of their lives.”
Celebrating the Holiday
On Memorial Day, American flags are to be flown at half-staff until noon to honor those who have fallen in service to their country. At noon, the flags are to be raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day to symbolize the resolve of those that remain to honor the sacrifices of the fallen and continue their fight.
The National Moment of Remembrance Act, passed in 2000, asks that Americans “pause and consider the true meaning of this holiday” at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day. Many municipalities hold Memorial Day ceremonies in conjunction with their local VFW, often including a parade or official ceremony in which local soldiers no longer with us are honored. National Cemeteries across the country will also hold ceremonies to honor the country’s fallen. Dates and times of these ceremonies will vary, and a list of these ceremonies can be found here.
Last Word on Memorial Day
Memorial Day is meant to be a time for the nation to reflect on the sacrifices made by the men and women that have served this country since its inception. Across the nation, many Americans have felt the sting of the loss of a service member. For these people, the three-day weekend represents much more than a day off work to lounge poolside. For the friends and family of the fallen, Memorial Day is a somber occasion to remember and celebrate the lives of their loved ones.
The phrase “Happy Memorial Day” is often tossed around as a well-meaning salutation or in the aggressive promotion of consumerism. As well-meaning as this greeting may be, it may be difficult for folks affected by the loss of a loved one to celebrate a “happy” Memorial Day weekend. Lynch went on to say in his statement, “Memorial Day only punctuates something they understand daily. I think there will be a noticeable change when there is a gap between conflicts that causes a generation not to be directly affected by combat. But right now Memorial Day is in the Forefront of everybody’s minds, for a day at least. For others, it’s just an exclamation mark.”
At the heart of this holiday, there is the theme of remembrance, a theme I implore you to embrace this Memorial Day. Take the opportunity to seek out your local Memorial Day ceremony. Visit your closest National Cemetery and pay your respects to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Seek out a Gold Star Family member and ask them to share memories of their loved one. And yes, warm up the grill, take the pool cover off, and enjoy time spent with your family in honor of the more than one million service members who have given their lives in service to this country.
Steve McGuire is a Gold Star Sibling of PFC Daniel A.C. McGuire, USMC. Daniel McGuire was killed in action on August 14, 2008, in Fallujah, Iraq. For more information about Gold Star Families, please visit the Gold Star Family Registry or the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
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