Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Memorial Day: History and Thoughts

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Memorial Day: History and Thoughts

Hello Grad.Life friends!
     I hope you've had a nice Memorial Day weekend. As the original day was May 30th, back in 1868, we may consider this whole week a time to celebrate and honor our fallen heroes. So, I'd like to take today's post to thank all the people who have served our nation in the military, and to remember those who sacrificed everything to do so. It's sometimes hard to put Memorial Day in its proper context amid the talks of barbecues, beaches, boardwalks, sales, Ladderball, and outdoor concerts. On the other hand, perhaps these Memorial Day festivities ultimately grew out of wanting and needing a time carved out to stop our daily lives and celebrate and commemorate with friends and family.

So... should we graduate students feel guilty about going to parties and cook-outs on Memorial Day? Or should we think about ways that enjoying time with our loved ones on a national holiday actually is a form of honoring our fallen heroes? Curious about the history of how the holiday evolved into what it is today, I did a bit of research. Here's what I found out.

     Originally, the day was called "Decoration Day," and it was a day to decorate the graves of soldiers in the Arlington National Cemetery who died in the Civil War. It was first officially declared in 1868, by General Logan, and observed on May 30 of that year.  Traditionally, the day's commemoration involves decorating and honoring the soldiers who have fallen in the service of our country, at the site of their graves. Often, municipalities held marked these cemetery visits with parades and public speeches, which would gather the townspeople together to make the decoration ceremonies and rituals more of a public event. It is thought that the end of May was chosen for this holiday because flowers were in bloom in most regions of the US. In addition to flowers, graves were also decorated with folded flags. By 1890, all Northern states officially recognized the holiday; after WWI, it was observed nationally.

     In 1971, Congress passed a bill that ensured the day would be celebrated the last Monday in May, giving us the three day weekend that we all have come to know today. Yet, actually, the three day weekend for Memorial Day has become somewhat of a controversy among veterans and families of fallen soldiers. Some have voiced the opinion that May 30th, no matter what day of the week it falls on, should be the day of the national holiday, in order to truly honor the fallen soldiers. According to
"Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend in with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. As the VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: 'Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.'"
In 2000, a resolution was passed to promote a nationwide moment of silence, or a listening of Taps, at 3pm on Memorial Day, to help bring focus to the historical meaning of the holiday. And yet, I (perhaps shamefully) never knew about this resolution until yesterday when I began to read about the history, in the waning hours of the holiday.

     Yet honestly, I feel that most national holidays are what they are today because it is a designated time when we as a nation take a day off from the hustle and bustle of typical American life. Ours is one of the most fast-paced and work-oriented cultures in the world, and deciding as a nation to take a day off from that in and of itself is a form of remembrance. Instead of going through the mundane routines of our everyday lives, a national holiday sets aside time that ties us all together, and focuses on togetherness and unity rather than our individual every-day life routines. So, IMHO, I don't think making Memorial Day into MDW is a bad thing at all. Rather, I think we should think about how giving ourselves a three-day weekend allows us to remember what is important in life -- family, friends, social interaction, play, music, human connection -- and what our soldiers are fighting for in the first place.
    Grad.Life readers, history majors, American studies scholars, sociologists, economists, and scholars of all disciplines -- what are your thoughts? Share here or on our FB page! (While you are there, "Like" our page!)
    Until next time, Liza

PS: I am happy to announce that I will be with you all summer, blogging for Grad.Life and getting us through a productive summer of scholarship and graduate life! If you'd like to see any stories or events covered here, let me know! :)

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