People are lucky if they get a day each year other than their birthday; we veterans get two, Veterans Day in fall and Memorial Day at the dawn of summer.
Think about who doesn’t get a day in the US: grandparents, Buddha, aunts and uncles, Mohammed, siblings, pet owners, Shiva, first responders, Moses, any professional athlete — and saddest omission of all, children. That vets get two is a tremendous indication of how valued military service is in our society. The only other recipient of two US holidays is Jesus.
The difference between Veterans Day on Nov. 11 and Memorial Day is that the fall holiday salutes all veterans, while Memorial Day is a tribute to those who died serving in the military.
Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day, a day of remembrance for soldiers who died in the Civil War. Noted historian David Blight has written about what may have been the first Decoration Day celebration, at the Charleston, SC Race Course. Recently freed slaves had dug up a mass grave of Union soldiers at the racetrack, which had been used as a Confederate POW camp, and given the soldiers proper burial. On May 1st of 1865, former slaves dressed in their going to meeting clothes and paraded around the track to herald the new cemetery and honor the fallen Union soldiers.
Blight is careful to point out that there is no evidence that the Charleston event inspired further Decoration Day celebrations. What we know as Memorial Day seems to stem from an event in Waterloo, NY, in May of 1866 that was noticed by the Grand Army of the Republic the Civil War veterans’ organization. The powerful GAR called for a national holiday on May 30, when many flowers were in bloom to use as decorations on soldiers’ graves.
A Decoration Day also was arising in the South, spurred on largely by the Ladies Memorial Association and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
While the term “Memorial Day” began to supplant “Decoration Day” in 1882, the holiday wasn’t official until 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill designating it a federal holiday. A year later, Congress changed the holiday from May 30 to the last Monday in May, ensuring a three-day weekend at the beginning of summer. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and some other groups oppose the weekend arrangement, but it is wildly popular and unlikely to be voted out.
It’s easy to get cynical about a Hallmark holiday for veterans, but why? Publicity for veterans’ issues is hard-won, and Memorial Day weekend is traditionally a slow news weekend, making plenty of room for veteran-related stories on t.v. and in the papers. This year’s crop pointed up the looming backlog of disability paperwork at the Veterans Affairs department and efforts to get homeless veterans off the streets and unemployed vets back to work. While meaningful help from our do-nothing Congress is unlikely, public focus might encourage some action.
Decorating graves with flowers is an old custom pre-dating the United States and common to many cultures (our neighbor Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a good example). Flags have replaced flowers at some ceremonies, but the idea remains the same, because it is a good one: saluting those who paid the ultimate price to defend our nation.
The last US veteran of World War I died two years ago, and there remain a half-dozen people on earth who are documented as born in the 19th century. Soon our World War II vets will be gone, too. Time is the best argument for Memorial Day — as it rolls along inexorably, we need to carefully tend our memories so that the bravery and sacrifice of US military people will not be forgotten. The day after Decoration Day should not be a letdown, but one of satisfaction and resolve.