Not Just Any Long Weekend

Although holidays lose their meanings, Memorial Day once had one.

Posted May 22, 2009

All meaning drains out of so many holidays so easily. When they're new, holidays spring from passion, shared emotion or experience, each one marking a marvel or debacle, joy or agony. To sanctify and universalize each holiday, rituals form: feasts, fasts, sacrifices, decorations, recitations, reenactments. A few holidays survive. Most vanish as whatever spurred them in the first place becomes ancient, irrelevant, taboo, absurd.

Rituals serve a purpose, though. They draw us out of the dreary quotidian. They give us something to look forward to. They help us survive crises because they celebrate what others have survived in times past. They connect us with our own histories, localities, communities. Sometimes they open long-locked regions of the heart and mind, spurring us to be mindful, grateful, soulful even if just for a week, a day, an hour or that split-second in which a candle flickers or we hear a certain chord.

When we abandon holidays, it's often due to sheer disuse. Like riding bicycles or speaking foreign languages, holidays slip away if you don't keep them up. Then again, most of us grew up never observing Memorial Day. As a kid in school, I was told what it was, but -- even though ours was a heavily military town -- we were never once taken to a cemetery to mark soldiers' graves. It would have been a worthwhile field trip, say on the Friday preceding Memorial Day weekend. But no. Lots of kids in our town had relatives in the armed forces. And lots of us, including myself, had relatives who had served in the first and second world wars and the Korean War. The Vietnam War was raging on through most of my elementary-school years and into middle school. Those would have been some precious teaching moments, eh? And they wouldn't have needed to be politicized. We could have been asked how it might feel to be drafted or enlist. We could have been asked how it might feel to leave the familiar behind and suddenly face danger among near-strangers. We could have been asked how, faced with such situations, we might cope. We could have just been told that in those graves lay human beings just like us who had been killed while fighting far from home. Was it already unacceptable by then to call them brave? Was it already forbidden to imply that some wars must be fought and that they hadn't died in vain?

I guess it was, because we never learned those things. We learned only that Memorial Day means no school, that it means a big trip to the supermarket for Ruffles and hot-dog buns. But for the sake of history (and because long ago I wrote a book, which is now waaay out of print, about the meaning of holidays), let me say what my teachers never said:

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 -- a few short years after the Civil War ended -- by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. After World War I, the tradition began of pinning red poppies -- real ones first, then silk and paper ones -- to lapels to mark the day. This tradition, now almost totally obsolete, was launched by fortysomething Columbia University alumna Moina Michael, who aided soldiers and sailors and their families as a YMCA volunteer. Working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries' headquarters in New York at the time of the armistice, she wrote this poem:

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.


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