May is upon us once again. The last day of the month will bring us Memorial Day Weekend. For most Americans that means the official start to summer. Here on the Lake Michigan shore it also means the informal beginning to the tourist and resort season. (Our town’s population more than doubles during the summer with the return of all the snowbirds.) That being said, how could I not take the opportunity to talk about the real meaning of Memorial Day?
The tradition of a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers began as early as the end of the Civil War. Various communities around the nation held their own day to honor their dead. The first attempt at a nationwide observance was the proclamation of “Decoration Day” by General John Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the national organization of Union Army veterans. General Logan proclaimed that May 30th of 1868, and each year thereafter, be set aside to decorate the graves of fallen Union soldiers. Most communities in the South did not participate, mainly due to a lack of Union graves, not to mention a lingering resentment toward the North.
The name “Memorial Day” did not come into use until after 1882. The sentiment of the holiday became accepted nationally after World War I when the country came together to honor all of our war dead. Now the day is officially Memorial Day by a Federal law passed in 1967. It is celebrated on the last Monday in May as per the National Holiday Act of 1971, passed to ensure that we get a three-day weekend for Federal holidays. Although Texas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Tennessee still have alternate days set aside to honor their Confederate war dead.
Many Americans seem to forget the meaning of the day. Some believe that this was fostered by the creation of the guaranteed three-day weekend in 1971. Some, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, believe that returning the date for Memorial Day to May 30th would help to re-educate Americans and encourage a more traditional day of remembrance and honoring of our fallen warriors. Over ten years ago, separate bills to do just that were introduced into the House and Senate. Unfortunately, neither bill made it out of committee (the place that most bills go to die). However, in 2000 a resolution was passed into public law to encourage a National Moment of Remembrance, “which invites everyone to pause where they are at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day in a uplifting act of national unity.”I do not glorify the sacrifices that were made in wars past and present. In fact, I view them as a tragedy. Nevertheless, wars do happen and someone has to go and fight them. As a historian and a veteran who was raised in a family of veterans, I am saddened to see the growing numbers of naïve and idealistic, not to mention the legions of the ignorant and apathetic. Memorial Day is a learning opportunity and an excellent day to take a reality check. I don’t want to be a buzz kill or party pooper and take away from the tradition of the barbeque, or the tailgate, or the camping trip you have planned for this Memorial Day weekend. By all means, enjoy. However, I do encourage you to take a moment to remember the sacrifices of others and pass on that reverence to your children…so that they can pass it on to theirs.