Memorial Day has got to be the most schizophrenic, mixed-message holiday in America.
Most people will focus on the holiday parts of the holiday: enjoying a three-day weekend, fireworks, barbecue, the start of summer… fun!
Many will travel. This year, AAA predicts that 34.8 million people will travel farther than 50 miles from home over the holiday weekend.
Many will shop. Countless retailers offer holiday sales, and like other major holidays (talking about you, Halloween and Christmas!), Memorial Day sales start ever earlier, this year as early as March.
There’s a lot to look forward to.
But it’s a holiday originally conceived to remember.
According to this 2009 CNN article: “Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s pay.”
Here are six more things to remember about Memorial Day.
1) Memorial Day’s origins are rooted in the devastation of the Civil War.
The Civil War was our bloodiest war, with approximately 620,000 soldiers killed either in battle or of disease – equal to about one in four soldiers or 2% of the population.
Communities were forced to confront death like never before. As many as two dozen different cities and towns claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day beginning in the mid-1860s.
But it was Waterloo, NY, that earned Congress’s official designation as Memorial Day’s birthplace. Waterloo began its annual day of remembrance on May 5, 1866, when businesses closed and the graves of dead soldiers were decorated.
2) For years, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, in recognition of the custom of decorating soldiers’ graves.
Decoration Day was declared on May 30, 1868 by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former soldiers and sailors. The terms Decoration Day and Memorial Day were interchanged for years as a remembrance for Civil War dead.
After the United States was drawn into World War I, what became known more often as Memorial Day was broadened to include Americans killed in service to country in all of our nation’s wars.
Federal law finally declared “Memorial Day” the official name of the holiday in 1967.
3) Decorating military graves remains important today.
Here in northern Virginia, on every Thursday before Memorial Day, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment of the Army place American flags at each of the over 260,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout the weekend, members of the regiment even patrol around the clock to make sure every flag stays aloft.
Thousands gather at the cemetery on Monday to watch the President or Vice President make remarks and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
4) There is a moment of silence at 3pm local time on Memorial Day.
A law was passed in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act, to reinforce the meaning of Memorial Day. The law asks Americans to “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.'”
5) We are still at war.
Americans are still sacrificing their lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere as we continue to fight the global war on terror. The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will officially end, however, in late 2014. Also, President Obama gave a significant speech yesterday arguing for an end to perpetual war in the post-9/11 era. You can read the full text of the speech here, or a good nonpartisan analysis here.
6) Veterans and military families need help.
Those Americans who survive war too often struggle disproportionately when they come home. Nearly one in seven homeless adults were veterans as of December 2011. 12.5% of veterans aged 18-34 were living in poverty in 2010, and the unemployment rate of veterans aged 18-24 still stands at over 20%.
On this Memorial Day, consider donating to non-profits that support veterans and their families, or, you can send a simple note of remembrance or thanks. Here are just three of the many well-governed non-profits helping veterans:
Operation Homefront – Focused on military families, its website features a “Current Needs” tab that lists specific needs for specific veterans; all cases are verified to ensure legitimacy.
Joining Forces – An initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, its website offers a clearinghouse of resources for veterans and their families. Its “Get Involved” link can help you find ways to help locally.
The National Gold Star Family Registry – Through this website, you can honor a “fallen hero” without spending a dime. It contains a registry of names of all who died in service to the country since the beginning of WWII. Just register and search the directory.
Have fun on Memorial Day, but also remember what it’s for.