Memorial Day sounds the starting gun for summer and, like most national holidays in the United States, it provides an excuse for retailers to promote their wares, for families to enjoy long weekends together, and for Americans all across the nation to gather at baseball games, patriotic concerts, cookouts or to simply bask in the sun.
From a more serious perspective, Memorial Day is the day we honor the memory of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who died in service to our country. While few of us take the time to decorate the graves of the fallen, many do take a few moment to think about the enormous sacrifice made by these individuals, especially if we served in the military or know of someone who did.
This holiday was born from some of the worst days in U.S. History – the Civil War. When and where the first Memorial Day was celebrated is unclear. Historians point to many different communities throughout the country. Perhaps the first occurred in May of 1865, when newly freed slaves, Union soldiers and whites from the North decorated the graves of Unions soldiers who died in a prisoner of war camp in Charleston, South Carolina.
Regardless of when or where the holiday began, the idea of decorating the graves of those who died in the war spread quickly across the nation. In the North, Decoration Day became a national observance, first celebrated in May of 1868. In the South, the holiday evolved at the state level, often called Confederate Memorial Day. The photo above shows young women from the Ann Smith Academy visiting the grave of Stonewall Jackson in Lexington, Virginia during the late Nineteenth Century.
As time passed, more Americans died in more wars and so we starting using the holiday as a way of honoring all Americans who have died in war. Finally, in 1967 Memorial Day was officially established as a national holiday.
Today, when we look around and realize that this may be one of the most divisive periods in U.S. history – some have compared it to the years leading up to the Civil War – perhaps we should consider expanding the ways we celebrate Memorial Day. After all, the evolution of Memorial Day offers proof that America can overcome differences, that we can respect each other and that we can work together for the common good.
Perhaps we should show our respect for those who gave their lives in service to our nation by ending all the divisive rhetoric and looking for ways to solve the challenges that face our nation today. Men and women, rich and poor, old and young, Republican and Democrat, religious believers and atheists, traditionalists and modernizers, gays and straights – we should stop fixating on the problems and start working together to find meaningful solutions.
Better than just sticking a flag on a grave, or eating a hot dog at a ballgame, working together would be a great way to honor the sacrifice that those hundreds of thousands of men and women made to preserve our nation.