– Or: What exactly are we remembering and why?

Memorial day weekend in the United States is a well advertised and prepared-for holiday for a variety of reasons.  It’s a national three-day weekend which everybody not working loves.  Sales at retail stores abound for the occasion.  Unless you’re living off the grid in the Arizona desert, you’ve been to at least one Memorial Day BBQ event.  Or concert.  Festival.  Or just slept in and relaxed for a day after a long few weeks.

But what exactly is the memorial that we are attempting to effectively celebrate?  We’re probably not going to remember the BBQ the following day if we do it right, that’s for sure.

Memorial day, here in the United States, is a holiday that is celebrated to honor the memories of those who perished during wars in which our nation was involved.

It was not always the case, though!  The evolution of the Memorial Day that we know today has an interesting past that I wasn’t aware of prior to TODAY.  Since sharing knowledge is one of the best ways to remember things, here we are!  Hopefully the efficacity of this entry will be to go away with new stuff in the keto-compatible fatty computer made of meat in our collective brain pans.

Memorial Day vs Veterans Day

Growing up, there always seemed to be conflicting definitions of what exactly was the difference between the two holidays Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  The most comm9n definition seemed to be as follows: “Veterans Day is for folks from the armed forces still alive, Memorial Day is for those who have since passed away.”  Pretty sure I saw that one was recently as this week.

There are some inaccuracies to that definition.

Veterans Day is a celebration day for all armed forces veterans.  That part is pretty simple.  The holiday is to honor all men and women who have served in the U.S. Military at any given point.  We celebrate this holiday on November 11th each year.  However! At one point, the 1968 Uniform Holiday Act (we’re going to come back to this in a few paragraphs) changed it to a more nebulous “Fourth Monday in October” in order to facilitate and more effective long weekend.  It didn’t last long, as 1975 brought a return to November 11th to honor the significance of the day.  The end.

Memorial Day, on the other hand, is a holiday that currently is defined as honoring those who lost their lives in military service for the United States.  So the definitions above are a bit skewed.  Veterans day is a celebration of all veterans. Memorial Day, lives lost.

Memorial Day was not always what we know it to be, however, and we’re going down the rabbit hole to effectuate some knowledge bombs.

The origins of Memorial Day

Memorial Day has a colorful history of having been claimed to be started by a large number of individuals. All at a number of different locations at all around the same time.  The commonality between all of them was that it was centered around remembrance of solders who perished in the American Civil War.  The decorating of graves of those fallen during that war is what effectively sparked the beginning  of what was to be called “Decoration Day.

Decoration of the graves of those fallen soldiers was the ultimate purpose and thus the name.  Once the holiday had been unified under a single umbrella of celebration, it was selected to be on the 30th of May each year.  The first acknowledged official celebration was marked on May 30th 1868.  Many speeches were made to commemorate its officialness, including effusive words from future-president James Garfield.  This took place at Arlington National Cemetery to an audience of roughly 5,000 individuals prior to the decorating of more than 20,000 combined grave stones.

Worth noting: this speech lasted two. entire. hours.  Dude was the energizer bunny of speech-givers.

New York was the first state to designate Decoration Day as a legal holiday in 1873 and by the end of that century many states had landed on that as an accepted legal holiday.

Shift from Civil War to All Wars and a Name Change

Up until the end of World War I, this holiday was still celebrated as a memorial of civil war soldiers.  Still on May 30th of each year.  At the close of World War I, the holiday was modified to encompass the memorialization of all fallen soldiers. America getting embroiled in another ugly conflict caused for more military lives to be lost in service to their country and the shift to an overall memorial made sense in the time and remains in place to this day.

It is said that Decoration Day had a concurrent “Memorial Day” name unofficially as early as 1882.  Following World War II – another occasion for lost military lives – the name Memorial Day became more common in usage than Decoration day.  Today we cal this “Organic Reach.”

In 1967, a federal law was enacted to declare a full name change to Memorial Day.

Save the Date

Shortly after officially changing the name of the holiday to Memorial Day, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1967.  This act moved four holidays to be celebrated officially on Mondays. This created more of the great national landmarks we call the Three Day Weekend.  This law took effect at the federal level in 1971.  As with many things in our nation there was an unwillingness to comply with the federal act initially.  Consistent with the notion that we’re divided on everything. It took a few years but eventually all 50 states finally got their acts together and adopted the change.

Sheesh.  Can we agree on anything?  Come on.

Different Regional Memorials in addition to Memorial Day

This was something that I found to be quite surprising.  Wondering whether or not there are still Confederate remembrance celebrations around the country? There does exist a Confederate Memorial Day.  Because of course there does.  The date changes depending on which state is celebrating it:

  • Alabama – Fourth Monday in April
  • Mississippi – Last Monday in April
  • Texas – January 19th (Confederate Heroes Day) and June 3rd (Confederate Decoration Day)
  • Tennessee – January 19th (Confederate Heroes Day) and June 3rd (Confederate Decoration Day)

I’m guessing I could find more states with similar observances if I did a bit more digging!  If you happen to find any other instances, let me know.  I love learning new things and hearing more about those alternative celebrations sounds like fun.

Evolution of Memorial Day Celebrations

Congress in 2000 established a National Moment of Remembrance which requests a single minute of silence at 3:00pm in an effort to bring back some degree of solemnity to the day.  Why would they need to bring it back?  It was already a holiday with a bit of lost meaning at that point.  However, if you’re feeling a bit guilty about chomping into a burger on this day, there’s a long lasting precedent.

How about the 1911 instituting of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30th?  Which, at the time, was the exact same day as Decoration Day.  Funny, that.  I’m willing to bet there were some grilled foods happening even back then.  The precedent for doing things that have nothing to do with a holiday goes back far.

As modern consumerism continued to develop into the thing that we know it as today, it falls into the same bucket as almost any other three day weekend.  Sales, events, food consumption, sleeping in, and some degree of loss of the meaning of the holiday that we are sleeping in on.

(side note: I was today years old when I first heard of the national minute of silence.  Given that I do not live off the grid in the Arizona desert, I’m wondering how I manged to go 22 years without knowing that…)

Final thoughts on Memorial Day

Growing up, our family did very little to acknowledge Memorial Day beyond it being a day off and a chance to eat grilled foods.  I suspect there are reasons for this: my grandfather was a World War II veteran who absolutely never spoke of his time in the armed services.  It was by chance that we found out that because of a vision disability he was kept stateside while the rest of his unit was deployed to Europe and eventually annihilated.  Memorial Day is a part of that tradition that not in our scope.  Possibly a deliberate omission.

My family experience is probably very similar to many others. Military families are likely the exact opposite. Solemn observation of the laying of the wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier.  The minute of silence at 3pm in their respective time zones.  Placing calls to their fellow families who, unfortunately, can say they have relatives who are part of what we memorialize on this day.  Probably a BBQ, really, because end of May sometimes has nice weather.  But I suspect the tone and tenor of the meal is different than that of the rest of the nation.

Will anything change…

Given everything that I have learned by diving down the chute, I’m not entirely sure yet what things are going to change in my own sphere.  For example today, by the time 3pm rolls around I’m not sure I’ll be in a place where an effective minute of silence could be accomplished.  I have a lot to reflect upon.  It’s also likely a to-be-continued kind of thing.  Maybe this entry will lead to some new effusions on the topic and I’ll have different things to say.  Maybe next year? Stay tuned!

(although a year is a long way away.  don’t like … you know … bate the breath or anything)

-= george =-



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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