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.