Today is the last Monday in May, also known as Memorial Day in the United States.
Memorial Day is a federal holiday, and government offices and many businesses are closed, giving many Americans a 3-day weekend.
It also marks the “unofficial beginning of summer.” Many people spend the weekend at parties or at the beach, grateful for the long weekend and a day off of work.
Inevitably, someone will wish you a “Happy Memorial Day.” It happens every year.
This is my pet peeve.
Before you wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day,” it’s worth pausing to consider what Memorial Day is all about.
I realize most people are too busy to pause much these days, but it’s a federal holiday, and if you have the day off then you have time to pause.
What is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is the day we designate to honor the men and women who DIED while serving in the U.S. Military.
It is distinct from Veteran’s Day, which is when we honor the living veterans of the U.S. Military. (More on this below.)
Memorial Day is a day for remembrance, reverence, and respect of those who gave their lives fighting for the freedoms we enjoy, or to help others secure those freedoms.
The Origins of Memorial Day
The traditions around Memorial Day originated following the Civil War, when it was known as Decoration Day.
In the late 1860s, after the conclusion of the Civil War, Americans would hold springtime tributes to fallen soldiers.
They would go to the cemeteries to decorate grave sites with flowers and recite prayers.
In 1966 the federal govermment declared Waterloo, New York the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo hosted an annual community-wide event, during which businesses closed so that residents could focus on the act of honoring the fallen soldiers.
Until 1968, Memorial Day was observed on May 30 every year. This was the date that had been selected by General John A. Logan, the leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, who had called for a “nationwide day of remembrance” for the fallen Civil War soldiers.
The Evolution of Memorial Day and the 3-Day Weekend
In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May to create a 3-day weekend for federal employees and declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. That change took root in 1971.
In a culture that is increasingly dismissive of rest, 3-day weekends become the rare respite in non-stop schedules.
In fact, that was the purpose of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The purpose of the legislation — which also moved Washington’s birthday, Columbus Day, Labor Day, and Veteran’s Day (though Veteran’s Day later moved back to its original date) — was commercial.
Jennifer Mittlestadt, a history professor at Rutgers University, told Time magazine that “travel organizations had been pushing for three day weekends like this since the 1950s.”
The change gave the industry what it wanted by providing many Americans with a paid holiday and the freedom to travel. The more celebratory approach to Memorial Day was a good fit for America at a time when patriotism was low in the wake of the Vietnam war. It reflected a shift to a more leisure-focused culture.
It did not bode well for the meaning of Memorial Day (or the other observances that were moved to Mondays).
Getting Lost in the Long Weekend
Soon enough, military veterans questioned the shift of these days to Mondays, feeling that the meaning of the observance was getting lost in the long weekend. They successfully lobbied to have Veteran’s Day moved back to its original date of November 11.
Memorial Day still remains on a Monday.
What’s the difference?
So we continue to “celebrate” Memorial Day “weekend” as the unofficial start to summer. Over time, the day has become about bar-b-ques, beach, and sales. It’s the kick-off to the summer blockbuster season, a big day for movie studios and movie theater owners.
It’s everything except what it was intended to be.
With every utterance of “Happy Memorial Day,” we get further away from the real meaning and purpose of the day:
Honor. Respect. Remember.
What will be the long-term effect of this trend of forgetting the legacy of those who gave their lives for our country?
Looking at our cultural divide, it’s fair to say that George Santayana was correct in his assertion that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
A Standard for Honoring Our Fallen Soldiers
For contrast, consider how Israel observes its Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron. On the evening before the day, a siren blasts throughout the country, ushering in the day. The next morning, another siren blasts for two minutes.
These sirens act like national mindfulness bells. When the sound pierces the air, Everybody. Stops. Everything. Stops.
People stop their cars on the highway. They stand where they are and observe a moment of silence while the sirens wail. They remember, reflect, and honor the lives given in defense of their country. Sacrifices made so that they can live.
Entertainment venues are closed. Television stations scroll the names of fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.
The day is observed immediately preceding Israel’s Independence Day, creating a clear connection between the sacrifices made by the fallen soldiers and the freedoms that resulted from those efforts. This was intentional.
Rest, Reflect, and Remember
As an advocate for honoring a sacred pause, I welcome any moments that encourage us to stop the unsustainable grind of our daily lives. Time at the beach and with friends is important for our productivity and our sanity.
We need more days to pause, rest, and relax. So, by all means: hit the beach. Put your feet up. Relax. Take time off of work if you can.
But please let’s not lose sight of the meaning of this day. People died so that we could enjoy a life of liberty. It’s worth some time to reflect on the sacrifices made by others and the legacy they leave behind.