This episode is all about Memorial Day. What it is, and maybe more importantly what it isn't.
- History of Memorial Day
- Modern day celebrations
- Why we celebrate Memorial Day
- Who isn't being celebrated on Memorial Day
- ...and more
This coming weekend is Memorial Day weekend. The unofficial start of the summer. It's when many Americans typically get together for a barbeque, grill some hamburgers and hot dogs, drink beer, head to the beach, or attend a parade. Although this year many of those things may be put on hold due to lockdowns that are happening throughout the country. Typically though, we do these things to celebrate the start of the summer, but we very rarely take a minute to think about what the holiday weekend is really all about.
In this episode I'm talking about Memorial Day. What it is, what it isn't, why we celebrate this day each year, and why this day has particular importance to me.
Originally, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day. It began in the years following the Civil War but didn't become an official federal holiday until 1971. In the late 1860's Americans in towns across the country started holding tributes to all of the fallen soldiers from the Civil War. They would visit cemeteries, decorate the graves with flowers, and pray.
In 1868, General John Logan, who was the leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, said that there should be a nationwide day of remembrance on May 30th. The purpose of that day was to decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in the Civil War, which at that time nearly every city and village across the country had some of those soldiers buried in their cemeteries. This is where the name Decoration Day came from. By 1890 each state in the North had declared Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states also honored their war dead, but they did it on separate days until sometime after World War 1. Although some southern states still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day in late April and early May.
Decoration Day was designed to only honor those who died in the Civil War. As World War 1 started, Decoration Day gradually started to be known as Memorial Day. The holiday evolved to honor all American military personnel who died in all of our country's wars. Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30th, but eventually Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which allowed for federal employees to get a 3 day weekend. Memorial Day would then be celebrated on the last Monday in May.
As I mentioned earlier, Memorial Day is celebrated with parades, parties, barbeques, and long weekend getaways. Americans also visit cemeteries and war memorials to honor and remember those who fought and died for their country.
That last part. Those who fought and died for their country is particularly important. Memorial Day is to honor those who died for their country. There are a few military holidays throughout the year, which honor different groups of people connected to the military, and I don't know if it's patriotism or confusion, or whatever but people have a tendency to thank veterans on all of these military holidays. In particular I'm talking about two holidays. Veteran's Day, and Memorial Day.
Veteran's Day is celebrated on November 11th each year. This is a day to thank military veterans for their service.
Memorial Day as I mentioned earlier is celebrated on the last Monday in May. This is the day to remember those who died serving their country.
And as a veteran, I am often times thanked for my service. A lot of veterans are uncomfortable with that sort of thanks. It sometimes feels forced, as if someone feels like they have to say something but just don't know what to say. But it's still appreciated. I mean look back 50 plus years ago when the Vietnam veterans were returning home. They were spit on, shunned, and made to feel like they were terrible people. Baby killers and all that. I certainly prefer the thanks over the complete disrespect. But I also think that the thanks needs to take a pause for one day out of the year. On Memorial Day, we aren't celebrating our living veterans. We're celebrating the over 1 million US service members who have been killed in action since the first shots were fired at Lexington.
Sometimes I hear people say that every day should be Veterans Day. I think they do that to express that they always want to honor veterans. It's another one of those overly patriotic moments. And I get that to an extent. They're grateful, and want to express it. But if every day is Veterans Day, then Veteran's Day isn't really all that special. It becomes just another day. And if other days like Memorial Day are grouped together with Veterans Day, then Memorial Day also loses its significance, which I think would be a tragedy.
Many veterans were there when some of these warriors were killed. Memorial Day is a day of reflection for these veterans. To remember their friends who were lost defending our country and our way of life. I can't speak for all veterans, but I know for me, I don't want to be thanked for my service on Memorial Day. Save it for Tuesday. Better yet, save it for Veterans Day. It actually hurts to be thanked for my service on Memorial Day. To me, it's taking attention away from the people who we should be honoring that day. By honoring me and other veterans who are still alive, we're taking time away from honoring people like my brother, Steven DeLuzio who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Or Tristan Southworth who died alongside my brother. Maybe people want to thank the living veterans instead of honoring the dead, because they can't say it to their face. To get a smile, or a reaction of some sort. Almost as if honoring the dead doesn't really make a difference. But it does make a difference. When you volunteer to join the military, especially during a time of war, you know that there is a possibility that you won't make it home. It helps, even just a little bit, knowing that the sacrifice you're willing to make won't be forgotten.
I also hear people saying "Happy Memorial Day" as if it is some sort of joyful occasion. That and the Memorial Day sales for cars, and everything else. It isn't meant to be a joyous occasion. It's meant to be a more solemn occasion I think. In recent years though, we've experienced all sorts of tragedies. The news makes us painfully aware that these things are happening all around us. Bombings, shootings, global viruses, murder hornets. I mean, these are just things that have happened in recent years. But think about all of the death, destruction, chaos that has gone on around the world and sometimes in our own backyards just during your own lifetime.
You probably can't name all of the tragedies that happened during your lifetime without resorting to a Google search. Sure you can remember 9/11, Oklahoma City bombing, things like that. I'm just as guilty. But you probably don't remember all of the tragic events. It's probably a defense mechanism that we've created for ourselves. We don't want to think about these bad things. We want to pretend that they don't happen. Or at least won't happen to us. That they happen to quote unquote other people. Just like on Memorial Day. We don't want to think about the price that these service members paid. The cost to their families, friends, and communities. For some of us it's too much to handle. It's much easier to enjoy the sunshine on the beach with some friends, and say Happy Memorial Day.
This August will mark the 10th anniversary of my brother's passing. I, like many Americans, grew up going to parades, heck I even marched in them with my little league team, going to family parties, and enjoying the day off from school. I always knew what the holiday meant, but I never really thought too much about it. I enjoyed the celebration and had fun. It never was something that would affect me personally, right? It wasn't until my brother was killed on August 22, 2010 that I became those "other people". Suddenly, this was something that does affect me and my family. I have a picture of him and I on my desk. I'm looking at it right now. It's from my wedding about two years before he was killed, almost exactly to the day. The day of his funeral was actually on my 2nd wedding anniversary.
I'm conflicted though. On one hand I want Memorial Day to be a solemn occasion. I want people to pause and give thanks to the people who gave their lives defending our country. Is one day out of your year too much to ask for? Actually, in 2000, Congress passed legislation that encourages all Americans to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3PM local time on Memorial Day. If you fly an American flag, it should be flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day then raised to full-staff. Are those things enough? I don't know. If everyone actually paused and thought about those who gave their lives, maybe it would be. But how many people actually know about these acts? How many people are still sober enough to remember by 3 in the afternoon is an even better question.
On the other hand, I don't think for a second that those who died would want us to mope around all day feeling sad that they're not there to celebrate with us. I'm pretty sure they'd want us to enjoy the freedoms we have. So I'm conflicted. Maybe there's a happy medium where we can pause for a few moments, think about the people who made all of this freedom possible, then carry on and enjoy the day.
That's a huge shift in my mindset from just a few years ago. I was borderline enraged when I heard the word "Happy" associated with Memorial Day. There was nothing happy about it for me. Actually, for a while I was living as if every day was Memorial Day. Constantly. But like I said about Veterans Day it loses its meaning if every day was treated like Veterans Day, Memorial Day was running the risk of losing its meaning to me too. So, I don't dwell on the past 365 days of the year anymore. On Memorial Day, I take time to pay respect to those who lost their lives. Then I gather with family and friends to enjoy each other's company.
This year I was supposed to travel back to Connecticut for Memorial Day. Covid had other plans for us so we had to reschedule. But we were going to host a celebration of the 10 year anniversary of my brother's death. The idea was to have family and friends come together, eat, drink, tell stories, and enjoy each other's company. Maybe that's the happy medium. We can still celebrate. Eat, drink, be together. But we can also take time to remember the sacrifice.
Hopefully I've accomplished my mission of telling you what Memorial Day is all about. Thanks for listening.