The TV blares out, “HUGE Memorial Day sale! Hurry, hur­ry, hur­ry!” The news­pa­pers are full of sim­i­lar ads. The gro­cery stores advise us to stock up on food for the grill – we must have a back­yard bar­be­cue, right? 

Like most Monday hol­i­days, it seems Memorial Day has become pri­mar­i­ly a day for con­sumerism and fam­i­ly feasts. While there is noth­ing ter­ri­bly wrong with those activ­i­ties, per­haps we should take a lit­tle time to reflect upon the his­to­ry and pur­pose of the holiday.

In the South dur­ing the Civil War, women cus­tom­ar­i­ly placed flow­ers on the graves of deceased Confederate sol­diers, and this prac­tice most like­ly led to the obser­vance of a par­tic­u­lar day to memo­ri­al­ize those who gave their lives in wars.

Memorial Day was first gen­er­al­ly observed in the U.S. in 1868 and was observed on May 30 until 1870.  It was then more typ­i­cal­ly known as Decoration Day, and the change of name was grad­ual.  The name Memorial Day was first attest­ed in 1882 and became more com­mon after World War II but was not declared the offi­cial name by fed­er­al law until 1967.

In 1971, Congress stan­dard­ized the date of Memorial Day as the last Monday in May.

In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which asked peo­ple to stop at 3 p.m. for a moment of silence.

The dif­fer­ence between Memorial Day and Veterans Day (observed in November) is that Memorial Day is specif­i­cal­ly ded­i­cat­ed to the dead of America’s wars.  Veterans Day rec­og­nizes the ser­vice of all vet­er­ans, liv­ing and dead.

On Memorial Day, flags at fed­er­al instal­la­tions are briskly raised to full staff, then low­ered to half-staff until noon, when they are then raised to full staff for the remain­der of the day.

Here in Winchester, there will be an obser­vance on Memorial Day behind the cour­t­house start­ing at noon, as there has been for sev­er­al years.

But it seems obser­vances of the hol­i­day have veered far from their intend­ed purpose. 

As far back as 1913, an Indiana vet­er­an com­plained that younger peo­ple born since the Civil War had a “ten­den­cy… to for­get the pur­pose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races, and rev­el­ry, instead of a day of mem­o­ry and tears.” Indeed, in 1911 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway race (lat­er named the Indianapolis 500) was object­ed to because it occurred on Memorial Day. This year the race will be held on Sunday, the day before the offi­cial observance.

But the Indiana vet­er­an had a very good point over a hun­dred years ago when he lament­ed the chang­ing atti­tudes regard­ing the day.

Today the spe­cial sales events tak­ing place on Memorial Day start adver­tis­ing weeks ahead and the day seems to have become one ded­i­cat­ed to shop­ping, not to remem­brance. And new accounts sug­gest that over thir­ty-nine mil­lion peo­ple will be trav­el­ing some­where this week­end, most not doing so as an adjunct to the day itself, but just to take advan­tage of an extend­ed weekend.

Since the Civil War, this nation has been in wars almost con­tin­u­ous­ly: the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Banana Wars (which most peo­ple prob­a­bly don’t even know about), World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  America has giv­en up over 1.2 mil­lion lives in mil­i­tary con­flicts (includ­ing the Civil War), and this doesn’t even include all the lit­tle skir­mish­es that occurred in the inter­ven­ing years between major conflicts.

At least our fed­er­al, state, and local offices will be closed on Memorial Day, as will banks.  But all the retail estab­lish­ments that will be remain­ing open and cater­ing to a will­ing pub­lic anx­ious to be out shop­ping will give no tes­ti­mo­ny to all those who lie unat­test­ed on that day.

Is a sin­gle moment of silence at 3 p.m. that day too much to ask?  Wouldn’t it be some­thing mar­velous if every store open that day would announce at that moment that all trans­ac­tions will stop for one minute? 

Even a great silence can con­note something.

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.

  • Pete Koutoulas

    Pete is an IT pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in Lexington. Formerly of Campton, he and his wife have lived in Winchester since 2015. Pete is a for­mer week­ly news­pa­per pub­lish­er and for­mer colum­nist for the Winchester Sun. These days, when not work­ing he can often be found on his back porch read­ing or writ­ing, in the back­yard tend­ing to his toma­to plants, or put­ter­ing around in his garage or work­shop. Reach Pete at pete@wincitynews.org.