We Americans often invest our holidays with so many ancillary trappings that they risk becoming all but unrecognizable. We move them around to accommodate family outings. We schedule events on and around them that have no connection to the matter at hand.
Consider Memorial Day, which was first observed on a national level (as Decoration Day) on May 30, 1868. Initially, it was a gesture proclaimed by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. He decreed that flowers be placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
Then, state by state, the observances and the significance of Memorial Day began to spread, first in the North and later in the South, after it evolved into a day to remember Americans who died in all the wars on the country’s lengthening list. Memorial Day remains a somber day with a solemn history. In many families, it is also an occasion to remember all lost loved ones.
But keeping focused on this holiday’s meaning can be a challenge. In 1971, Congress moved the observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May, helping cement the weekend as a here-comes-summer, three-day getaway. And, in a remarkable peculiarity, our tranquil Memorial Day weekend also plays host to the boisterous Indianapolis 500 automobile race, now in its 103rd running.
Still, since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the effort in Afghanistan and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, our Memorial Days are more solemn than they had been in immediately preceding years. For many of us, Monday will primarily be observed as a day to remember the men and women who died in the service of the United States. And it will be a day to bring Americans of all beliefs and convictions together to renew their commitment to the heritage those people bequeathed to us.
Quiet, private moments are the essence of this holiday. Contemplation over a veteran’s moss-speckled tombstone worn smooth by the ages. Unspoken thanks to well-remembered friends who gave their lives much more recently. Memories of parents. Tears for sons and daughters who left us before their time.
Such personal reflections require no particular staging; they can flow directly from the heart at almost any time — during a traditional Memorial Day ceremony, a religious service, a family cookout, a sporting event or a visit to a neighborhood cemetery that we normally pass without a thought. Monday, the flag-raisings, parades, wreath-layings and speeches will give the day its structure. But, as always, the private moments will make up its substance.