Most Americans probably don’t fully understand Memorial Day. Probably the rest of the world doesn’t, either.
Other countries have their days to remember their war dead. Britain, Canada, France, and others mark their days of remembrance around November 11, the anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Here in the United States, that date became Armistice Day, and later Veterans Day, when we honor the veterans still among us.
America’s Memorial Day grew out of a practice that started shortly after the Civil War. In towns in the North and South alike, citizens organized on weekends in the spring to mark the graves of war heroes. Decoration Day, as it was known then, was a solemn local event in with community processions to the graveyards to lay wreaths or flowers.
At the end of World War I, Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day to honor the dead of all wars. The date was standardized as May 30 until 1971, when it became part of the national calendar of Monday holidays.
And that is where the trouble began.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 set Presidents Day as the third Monday in February (replacing the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln). Memorial Day is the last Monday of May, Labor Day the first Monday of September, and Columbus Day the second Monday of October. Later, the third Monday in January became Martin Luther King’s Birthday.
By default, Independence Day is often a three-day weekend, too. The federal holiday is the 4th, but if that lands on a Saturday or Sunday, the holiday is celebrated on Friday or Monday. If it falls midweek, as it does it does on a Tuesday this year, people often take an extra day off on the Monday before or Friday after.
That means long holiday weekends — great for travel and events — in May, July, September, and October. Party time!
That’s great for Independence Day, the nation’s birthday. But Memorial Day weekend isn’t sure whether to be a funeral service or spring break. The latter is a lot more fun, and so many folks simply treat the long holiday weekend as the first weekend of summer.
Of course, people can do both: honor the dead and celebrate the freedoms they fought for and defended. In a three-day weekend, there’s plenty of time for both. Just be sure to separate the two.
Here are some tips on how to do that, which I shared for many years in my “Living Here” column for the Republican-American:
- It’s a procession, not a parade. Be respectful. Don’t throw candy, wear goofy costumes, or try to make a show of yourself. There will be time to do that at the picnics.
- Show respect for the flag. Stand at attention as the honor guard passes with the American flag. Place your right hand over your heart. Men remove their hats and hold them in the right hand, over the heart. Anyone in uniform should salute in the style appropriate to the unit.
- Respect the speakers. Often they’re in uniform themselves. They are there because they have something they want to share. Listen.
- Respect those who mourn. Memorial events often are painful for family, friends, and survivors of the lost. Give comfort where you can, and privacy where appropriate.
- Visit a memorial. Ceremonies often take place at war memorials. Take some time to read the names of loved ones from your community who were lost. Or walk through a graveyard and see all the American flags at the gravesites, marking the sacrifices made for your freedoms.
We do these things together as a community to show our shared pride and mourn our shared losses. When the ceremonies are over, the time is our own to celebrate our freedoms, at home or perhaps with others.
July 4th is a time to celebrate. Memorial Day is a time to remember. May yours be meaningful and memorable.