In more normal times, Memorial Day meant a three-day weekend, barbecues in the backyard with family and friends, trips to the beach or the lake, watching baseball, or NASCAR races on television.
For most of us, the day marks the beginning of summer and a more leisurely pace.
Memorial Day 2020 will likely stand in sharp contrast to those entertainments. Many Americans will have endured a 30-day weekend, or longer. Parts of the country may remain in lockdown. In other places, businesses will have reopened, but large crowds will be discouraged or illegal. Most sporting events are canceled, many movie houses will sit silent and unlit, and some beaches may be closed. Some people have undoubtedly changed plans for trips or vacations, and even day-trippers might encounter obstacles in their travel plans.
In all likelihood, Memorial Day this year will be a bit more somber, a bit less exuberant than in times past.
But maybe the shift in mood is a good thing. Maybe a quieter, more reflective Memorial Day is just what our nation needs.
A Brief History
Memorial Day was never intended as a holiday, but is instead that special day set aside to remember American military personnel who gave their lives for their country. It is the day when we pay homage to those whom Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, called “these honored dead.”
Decoration Day, as it was originally known, came into existence after the Civil War. In 1966, Congress recognized Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Three years after those citizens held the first Decoration Day, so-called because it was a time for decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers, Gen. John Logan in 1868 called for a national time of remembrance of the Civil War dead.
Soon, other states adopted the idea, and eventually the dead from other wars were included in this day of recollection, although it wasn’t until 1971 that Congress made Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday of May.
While we may miss some of our usual festivities associated with Memorial Day, we have the opportunity to celebrate this holiday in a manner more in keeping with its intended purpose. Here are some ways we can honor those who laid their lives on the altar of freedom.
Red, White, and Blue
Display the flag. Whatever the size of your flag, today is the time to show your colors. On this day, flags on a pole are lowered to half-staff from sunrise until noon, then raised to the top of the staff until nightfall, a symbolic recognition of both the loss and the triumph of our fallen warriors.
To learn more about flag care and etiquette, you may read online The Old Farmer’s Almanac article “U.S. Flag Etiquette, Rules, and Guidelines.”
Visit a cemetery. Many Americans still practice this long-standing tradition of paying a visit to the graves of soldiers on this special day. Some who come to pay tribute bring flowers; others push a small American flag into the earth beside the headstone; still others bring a pair of garden shears and trim the grass around that headstone.
When my children were small, my wife and I took them several times to nearby Green Hill Cemetery, found the graves of soldiers, including those who had fought for the Confederacy, and used these excursions for lessons in history and patriotism.
Visit a war memorial. Many towns and cities have memorials to those who served and died in our wars. In Waynesville, North Carolina, where my family lived for over 20 years, we frequently strolled past the Vietnam War memorial on the courthouse lawn, a small monument with a pair of bronzed combat boots at the base, the names of more than 20 men who had died in that war, and this inscription, “Dedicated to the honored memory of Haywood County’s sons who sacrificed their lives in the Republic of South Vietnam.”
Here in Front Royal, Virginia, we again find on the courthouse lawn several memorials to those who died in service.
Silence and Poppies
Honor the National Moment of Remembrance. In 2000, a Gallup poll showed that only 28 percent of Americans knew the significance of Memorial Day. That same year, in an effort to raise awareness of the meaning behind this holiday, Congress enacted the National Moment of Remembrance (Public Law 506-579), asking all Americans to pause in silence for one minute at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day and remember the dead of our wars.
Take this moment with your family and friends to reflect on the many sacrifices made to ensure our liberty, and you may find these 60 seconds of contemplation a powerful and moving experience.
Wear or display poppies. Though we usually associate the poppy with the British “Remembrance Day,” which is their version of Memorial Day, the idea of wearing a poppy to honor our war dead came to us from an American professor, Moina Michael. Inspired by Canadian soldier and physician Col. John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field” with its opening lines “In Flanders Field the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row,” Moina Michael wrote her own poem about poppies, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” and later promoted the sale of silk poppies to raise money for disabled soldiers.
Known as the “Poppy Lady” for the rest of her life, Michael sought the help of the American Legion Auxiliary in these distribution efforts, which to this day sells artificial poppies.
Use literature, music, speeches, and art to enhance the day and to teach children and grandchildren the importance of our liberty and its cost. Google “Memorial Day Poems,” and a dozen websites stand ready for your inspection. Google “Memorial Day Art,” and you’ll find not only lots of images, but also some sites offering craft projects for children. Watch Ronald Reagan’s speech on Memorial Day, 1982, at Arlington Cemetery or the many other inspirational addresses you may find online. Type in “Memorial Day Musical Tributes,” and you’ll find an array of music from country to classical.
When we celebrate Memorial Day with our cookouts, trips to the shore, and a day off from work, we should feel neither guilt nor shame. Those who died in places such as Antietam, Belleau Wood, Normandy, the Chosin Reservoir, Ia Drang Valley, and Kamdesh gave their lives so that we who are living could enjoy liberty and the freedom of these pleasures.
All we have to do in return is to pause, remember them, and give thanks for their sacrifices.
And vow to follow their example and preserve those hard-won liberties.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.