GCN Lab director John Breeden considers the real meaning of the first holiday of summer.
As we get our hamburgers and hot dogs ready for grilling, check the filter in our pools or gas up the car and get ready to head for a sandy beach this weekend, let’s try not to forget what Memorial Day is all about. It seems many of us have forgotten the real meaning in the haze and general euphoria of the year’s first summer holiday.
People who think that Memorial Day is little more than a three-day weekend shouldn’t feel bad. Back in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved the observance of Memorial Day, along with Washington’s Birthday and Veterans Day, to specified Mondays for the explicit purpose of creating three-day weekends. And hey, I’m not going to sneeze at a three-day weekend, especially one that unofficially kicks off the summer season.
But Memorial Day started in 1865 to honor those who died in the Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day because of the graves that were adorned in the ceremony, it would become a national day to remember those who die in the service of the U.S. Armed Forces. This is separate from Veterans Day, which generally celebrates our living soldiers. The story of how the holiday spontaneously came into being is actually a very moving one and there’s a (mostly online) movement to restore Memorial Day to its “proper date.”
Full disclosure: I didn’t sign the petition. If we want to have three-day weekends to go along with our holidays, that’s fine with me. The dates we celebrate really don’t matter. But what we do does. Not everyone can visit Arlington National Cemetery or even the National Mall for the Memorial Day festivities. There isn’t even a webcam inside the cemetery, which is surprising, though the National Park Service does operate one from the nearby Netherlands Carillon. But everyone has a local cemetery nearby. Why not take a moment to visit the graves of those who died giving their lives in the service of our country? And if you want to leave a flag or a flower behind, so much the better.
Remember, it’s because of their sacrifice that we get to have backyard barbecues or long weekends at the beach. Hey, you work hard. You’ve earned your time off. But take a moment to thank those who made it possible. You’ll honor their memory, and probably feel better about your holiday at the same time.