History Teaches Us: Never Forget Memorial Day

People have been decorating fallen soldiers’ graves for ages. It’s a symbol of respect, love, and appreciation for their sacrifice. However, it was only after the American Civil War that we came up with a name and date for the celebration. Initially dubbed Decoration Day, the holiday was meant to honor those fallen heroes which gave their lives for their country.

“Memorial Day” first started being used in 1882, and in 1967, the name became official. One year later, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This moved four thematically-related holidays to the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend. According to many, this was a huge mistake, as it took away from the meaningfulness of the celebration.

That is the topic for today’s History Teaches Us. Does Memorial Day still have the same significance it used to, or has it become disconnected from the meaning it once held? Join us as we investigate the history of the holiday and the general public’s views, all while using a bunch of Memorial Day quotes to emphasize the points we’re trying to make.

Decorating in Memoriam

flags and graves in cemetery during memorial day

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” – Joseph Campbell

The true origins of unofficial Memorial Day are lost in history. As mentioned before, people have been decorating soldiers’ graves since Antiquity. However, the annual celebration is generally believed to have started sometime before the Civil War.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper, the first Civil War soldier had his grave decorated in 1861. However, it was after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln that the commemoration became ubiquitous.

Historians still argue about the origins of the holiday despite President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaiming Waterloo, New York, as the titleholder. Starting out with the graves of Union soldiers, the tradition extended to the South as well. Soon, both Union and Confederate survivors honored their dead with flowers, monuments, and celebrations.

The denomination of Memorial Day gradually became more common than Decoration Day after the Second World War. It was declared the official name in 1967.

Changing Dates

memorial day veteran

America is hope. It is compassion. It is excellence. It is valor.” – Paul Tsongas

In 1971, a Federal law took effect, moving the holiday from May 30 to the last Monday in May. Many states were reluctant to comply but eventually gave in. However, it did take a few years for all the states to finally accept the changes made by Congress.

Since then, the holiday has been marking the unofficial beginning of summer. Many businesses take advantage of that in their marketing campaigns. Other groups, meanwhile, are still fighting to return the holiday to its original date.

Two of these groups are The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and  The Veterans of Foreign Wars. In 2002, during the Memorial Day Address, the latter group said that “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.

And many U.S. citizens, particularly veterans and relatives of fallen soldiers, agree with the sentiment.

Perceived Significance

rolling thunder in Washington dc during memorial day

The brave die never, though they sleep in dust, their courage nerves a thousand living men.” – Minot J. Savage

According to Iraq War veteran and former Army captain Allison Jaslow, “You can see it in people’s faces that they’re a little horrified that they forget this is what the day’s about. […] Culturally, we’ve kind of lost sight of what the day’s supposed to mean.

One of the main issues with moving Memorial Day to create a long weekend is that it generated an increasing disengagement between civilians and the Military. People are obliviously and cheerfully wishing “Happy Memorial Day!” without really thinking about what it means. The somber, respectful holiday once meant to honor the fallen is now primarily an opportunity to have fun and take some time off from work.

And that wouldn’t be a bad thing if the original significance was kept. Most veterans and relatives of fallen military simply wish that the celebration commanded a bit more respect. Seeing as more than one million people died serving the country, the tradition should be more about honoring them and less about picnics and barbecues.

Memorial Day Weekend

memorial day pre july 4th picnic

The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.” – Benjamin Disraeli

Speaking of picnics and barbecues, this is what most of the USA is up to on Memorial Day weekend. This has to do not only with the disengagement between the military and the public but also with an all-time low when it comes to enrollment.

During World War II, more than 12% of the population served in the armed forces. Of course, this was partly owed to the mandatory draft. Today, however, less than 0.5% of the population serve in the military.

On one hand, that’s good, because we are in a Long Peace. On the other, it desensitizes the majority of the population from the plights of those fighting for their country. Shared sacrifice being now a thing of the past, many veterans consider that the American culture does no longer understand or appreciate the sacrifices of their fallen brothers.

However, there are still plenty of citizens who spend the Memorial Day weekend honoring the departed. Many veterans believe that the country has become far more patriotic than in the days leading up to 9/11. And if the attendance at the many decoration celebrations across the country has dropped, it’s still higher than in the pre-terror attacks era.

Allison Jaslow is also part of a group called the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The group is trying to raise awareness to the nation’s fallen soldiers via their #GoSilent campaign. Monday, at 3 p.m., they encouraged a moment of silence in remembrance to their brothers-in-arms.

Signing off, I want to leave you with this quotes from Nick Lampson – “There is nothing nobler than risking your life for your country.” We hope that you’ve enjoyed this article on the Memorial Day Weekend. If you’re interested in the topic, check out this other blog post on our site – “Is Patriotism Getting Outdated?

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