It’s frowned upon to wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day.” Due to its solemn origins, there has always been a debate over how the holiday should be observed.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, for it grew out of the custom of decorating the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers killed in the Civil War.
Does that mean the holiday should be spent in silent contemplation of our nation’s war dead and the sacrifices they made, or is it OK to watch a parade, break out the white pants and picnic baskets and head to a barbecue or baseball game?
Memorial Day allows room for both approaches. We should not lose sight of the debt we owe to those who gave their lives in service to their country, but those who went to their rest would not deny us the chance to enjoy time with friends and family.
Gold Star wife Krista Simpson Anderson lost her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Michael Harrison Simpson, in Afghanistan in 2013. Anderson told Military.com she gets upset “when people scold others for enjoying the weekend or having barbecues. What do you think our service members did before they died? Mike sure did enjoy his family and friends.”
Like many controversies now in vogue, this one is nothing new. President Grover Cleveland made news headlines when he went fishing on Decoration Day in 1887. A dispatch from the Sacramento Daily Record-Union said that Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo, caught “a handsome string of brook trout” at Saranac Lake. Other news coverage of the day was less flattering, pointing out that the sporting president had paid for a substitute to take his place in the army during the Civil War.
Rev. Dr. William B. Leach of Chicago in 1896 condemned the way his countrymen “so forget ourselves as to make Decoration Day a day for hilarious, madcap fun, without thought of the boys, old now and weak, whose hearts are bleeding and torn afresh with memories.”
There is legitimate concern about the holiday’s meaning being lost amid the retail sale-a-thons. According to a Harris poll survey commissioned by the University of Phoenix this year, only 55% of Americans know what Memorial Day is about.
The survey, conducted April 9-11 among 2,025 adults, showed that 27% of those surveyed thought Memorial Day honored all military veterans, 5% thought it honored those currently serving, and 3% thought the day marked the official beginning of summer.
Religious scholar Catherine Albanese has pointed out that the holiday began to evolve in the national consciousness after the Vietnam War ended in the early 1970s. The unpopular war caused much of the American public to question the meaning of dying in battle.
Albanese wrote about the holiday’s evolution in a 1974 essay in American Quarterly titled: “Requiem for Memorial Day: Dissent in the Redeemer Nation.” She said that the holiday’s role in kicking off the season of barbecues and beach-going was important as an affirmation of life.
“Parade and picnic together achieve a reconciliation of the conflicting claims of life and death. Each makes the other more meaningful,” Albanese wrote.
It’s a day to bow our heads, observe a moment of silence, and then maybe take in a parade or fire up the grill while celebrating the freedom that our service members have fought to secure.