Remembering Memorial Day

One of the sad results of a republic’s maturation into middle age is the proliferation of holidays meant to celebrate its history. As holidays are added to the calendar, they are sometimes co-opted by the traditions that spring up around them.

For instance, we are currently heading into Memorial Day weekend, a holiday once known as Decoration Day. Many of the students I teach don’t understand the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, much less Patriot Day (in memory of 2,977 killed in Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks) and Patriots’ Day (the civic holiday commemorating the anniversary of the first two battles of the Revolutionary War). To adolescents, these commemorations become little more than a mass of red, white, and blue bunting decorating their picnic tables.

It was the same in my time. It wasn’t that I wasn’t taught properly; it was that those history lessons never had a chance to sink in. Memorial Day meant marching in the parade, whether with a soccer team, the Indian Guides or the Cub Scouts. It meant a series of barbecues down by Penfield Beach before watching the Indianapolis 500 on TV. Veterans Day meant a rare Tuesday off from school while haggard strangers stood in line to vote in our middle school gym. Patriots’ Day meant the running of the Boston Marathon and an early-morning Boston Red Sox home game. One could explain the significance behind these days until blue in the face, but one mention of a pony ride and that significance disappeared along with the charcoal smoke.

As a result, kids forget the meaning of what we are supposed to be memorializing. Some say this started in 1967, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that moved several holidays from their traditional dates to Mondays to create three-day weekends. This moved Memorial Day from its original May 30 date to the last Monday in May. Veterans including the late Sen. Daniel Inouye from Hawaii have repeatedly introduced legislation to return Memorial Day to its original date because of perceived indifference by the general public. Rather than remembering the dead who have served this country, it is thought that the general public views the day as a three-day picnic that celebrates the start of summer.

True, this type of holiday whitewashing can be seen in many holidays: Santa becomes the symbol for Christmas, a rabbit for Easter, picnics and sales events dominate the Fourth of July.

However, forgetting the purpose behind Memorial Day eats at the very fabric that keeps our country together. Whether or not we agree with the policies of our leaders, we should always celebrate the honor and courage of the young men and women who fight for our right to argue those policies. Without the proper context, the importance of remembering and honoring those who fought for us throughout our history, our children grow up more concerned about the trappings of our holidays than the reasons for their existence.

Earlier this month, several volunteers helped repair the vandalism at the Veterans Monument at Academy Hill, which has been repeatedly damaged in recent years. It’s clear we need to do a better job of communicating the importance of those celebrations that make us truly American.

Traditionally, the American flag is lowered to half-mast until noon on Memorial Day out of respect for more than one million men and women who have given their lives in the service of this country. At noon, the flag is raised to symbolize how we honor their sacrifices by continuing the fight for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It would be great to see this tradition woven into the thousands of barbecue picnics across Fairfield County this weekend. If nothing else, it might remind us that there’s a reason we get to enjoy the meal.

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