The Evolution of a Holiday (Holy Day)
When I was growing up, Memorial Day was still known among my much older aunts and uncles as Decoration Day. For them it was a day to remember the dead, not just the military dead, but all those family members who had gone before. It was the family custom to visit the cemetery across the road from the old farm and place flowers on the graves of the remembered dead.
As a teenager Memorial Day in our small town was the day to listen to a few speeches by local notables down in the local park. They eulogized those who died in our wars. Then local military veterans, mostly in their fifties and sixties, their performance slightly less than crisp, fired off a twenty-one gun salute with their Springfield rifles, seven men, three volleys, in honor of our military dead. The Vietnam War was just starting to percolate somewhere far away.
Like other national mythologies we were taught, it seemed to me that Memorial Day had always been celebrated—and that it meant the same thing to everyone. The historic truth is far more complex. Our commemorative national holy day grew out of local commemorations organized by locals in various communities during and after the American Civil War. The wikipedia article on Memorial Day offers a window on the complexity of the process by which we arrived at the current observance. The lesson is that many things we take for granted actually evolved over a long period of time, nudged forward by the efforts of many individuals and organizations. Memorial Day today feels like a day trying to speak of national unity—but its origins lie in the sometimes bitter remembrances of our bloodiest conflict as a nation.
As we mark this Memorial Day let us strive to understand and deal honestly with the injustices over which the Civil War was fought and so many lives were lost, lives lost both during the war and in the aftermath that stretches to this day.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. I hesitate to use the words celebration or holiday in describing Memorial Day. Both modern words connote joyousness, a feeling that seems to run counter to day that marks the remembrance of the dead.