Monday, May 29, 2017

Decoration Day

The bookends of summer in the United States are two very important holidays, Memorial Day and Labor Day. They are especially important because they both commemorate people whose contributions and sacrifices to this country have enabled all of us to live in relative freedom and prosperity, blessings that most of us take for granted today. A good example of that is how many of us confuse the two holidays. Just the other day before the long weekend, more than one person wished me a happy Labor Day.

Like everything these days it seems, Memorial Day has been politicised. It has now become de-rigeur in some circles to chastise folks who wish each other a "Happy Memorial Day." No, this is not a happy day of  frivolity they say, it is a day of solemn remembrance of our servicemen and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country. Well it certainly is that, but it does seem to be rather heavy handed to insist that it cannot be both a day of remembrance, and a day to celebrate. After all the men and women who served AND died in their service, did not die so that we would forever be in their debt (that part goes without saying), they died so that we could be free.

Memorial Day has its roots in ancient customs of special days devoted to visiting cemeteries and decorating the graves dead loved ones. The most famous of these events, one that is very much alive and well to this day, is Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is celebrated in Mexico between October 31st and November 2nd. The holiday is anything but a solemn day of mourning, but a a day of celebration and festivities, designed to re-connect those of us in the land of the living, with our loved ones who have gone to their eternal reward.

Foreign as these festivities may seem today to those of us who do not share that particular culture, most cultures had similar festivities involving gathering at cemeteries to honor the dead and to maintain the graves of loved ones. These days were called Decoration Days. In the days before cemeteries that insured the perpetual maintenance of gravesites, these events not only helped bond the living with the dead, but also provided a means to maintain their graves, preventing them from being swallowed up by nature.

The established American practice of a Decoration Day to honor the war dead, probably began in the South during the Civil War where the tradition of setting aside a day to lay flowers at the graves of fallen soldiers took place, The practice was picked up sporadically in the North as well. No American war was as costly as our Civil War where over 600,000 lives were lost. So profound was the loss that national cemeteries were founded just to house the remains of dead soldiers. The most famous consecration of such a place of honor, took place on November 19, 1863 in the town of Gettysburg, PA, four months after the battle that took place outside of town that claimed about 51,000 lives on both sides.

Monument to General John A. Logan, Grant Park, Chicago
The idea of setting aside an official national Decoration Day to honor the Civil War dead, came after the war and was initiated by John A. Logan, a Union Civil War general and Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. The first observance of Decoration Day in the United States was May 30, 1868. The date was chosen because it was not an anniversary of any significant battle of the war and because it was an ideal day for flowers to be in bloom.

Gradually, Decoration Day began to be observed on May 30th on a state by state basis in the north, while each southern state had its own day of remembrance for the Confederate dead, which many still observe to this day. It wasn't until World War I, where the day would become a remembrance for the fallen soldiers of all wars, not just the Civil War. The term "Memorial Day" was coined in the 1880s but never took hold until the 1970s, when the holiday was officially recognized in all fifty states.

Memorial Day has become a patriotic day of parades, picnics, and a celebration as the first official day of summer. Critics say much of the significance of the day has been lost since observation of the holiday was moved from May 30, to the last Monday of May, creating a three day weekend for most working people. Perhaps this is true. But I see no harm in celebrating this day. After all, we as a nation owe a great deal of debt to the men and women of the armed services who have fought and sometimes died in order to keep us free. Now that, is something to celebrate.

We owe it to them to remember them, but more importantly to remember that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Wrapping ourselves in the flag or making empty patriotic gestures on this or any other day means nothing. We must keep in mind that threats to the values of this nation not only come from abroad, but from within. Our own hubris, greed, sloth, hatred of those not like ourselves, self-serving attitudes, unrelenting lust for power, and perhaps most importantly, our lack of concern for the lives of other people, are as much a threat to our democratic principles, as threats from any outside power. We owe it to our servicemen and women, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, to take part in our democracy, to vote, and when we see fit, to use our voices against oppression, injustice, and intolerance, and most of all, to care about our nation and our world. If we fail, then their sacrifice will have been in vain.

On this Memorial Day, I give thanks to all of you who have devoted yourself in service to this country. Your sacrifice and devotion will never be forgotten. And to all I wish you without reservation, a happy Memorial Day.

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