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The History and Meaning of Memorial Day

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Although justified in the name of human rights, our nation’s Civil War tore entire families asunder and left many casualties.   In order to help our country begin to heal from its self-inflicted wounds, many communities across the country set aside a day to honor those who had fallen in the Civil War.  Aptly named Decoration Day, it mirrored the practice of decorating the graves of the fallen with flowers and flags.

The first observance of Decoration Day occurred on May 5th, 1866 at Waterloo, New York.  Two prominent generals – General John Murray, who was a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, and General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of a veteran’s organization known as The Grand Army of the Republic –present that day determined that they would expand the holiday to encompass families and their departed loved ones nationwide.  Thus positioned to claim the attention of the public, these military leaders proclaimed that Decoration Day be observed nationwide.  A few short weeks later, on May 30th of the same year, it was.  The date of May 30th may very well have been arbitrary, as it was not associated with any Civil War battle.

Many Southern States refused to observe the holiday, due to the hostility that lingered in the air long after the last shot of the war was fired.  In order to gain the South’s consensus, the name Decoration Day, which was so closely associated with the Civil War, became known as Memorial Day.  The name was first unveiled in 1882, but it did not become official until June 28, 1968!

On that day, Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Bill, a piece of legislation that moved traditional dates of observance to specified Mondays, so as to create three-day holiday weekends.  The holidays so chosen were George Washington’s Birthday (later known as Presidents Day, when it was combined to simultaneously honor Abraham Lincoln), Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day.  However, as many veteran organizations did not wish to comply with the bill, Veteran’s Day was ultimately restored to its original date of November 11th.

As a result of this creation of long holiday weekends, most corporate businesses no longer close on Veteran’s day, Columbus Day, President’s Day, or the day after Thanksgiving, because it’s good for business!  By moving Memorial Day, in 1971, from its traditional May 30th to the last Monday in May, our lawmakers either wittingly or unwittingly created the three-day weekend that has come a long way from honoring our fallen heroes.  Instead of decorating graves, throngs flock to our oceans, rivers, and lakes to jump into the drink and patronize all manners of vendors, who profit.  Larger profits = more taxes, so I suppose the government had this planned all along as a money maker, rather than a way to give hard working taxpayers a long weekend.

More than two centuries have passed from America’s courageous and tenacious inception in 1776.  But at every step in our evolution, we have paid the price of freedom.  As the pages in our history have turned past the Civil War to the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Desert Storm, and the Iraqi and Afghan wars, those pages were marked by a long trail of American blood.  That blood is still being shed for the freedoms that many of us now take for granted.

A wise man once said, “Sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless” and “A promise made is a debt unpaid.”  As a nation, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the people who have served and who continue to serve and protect us.  These include our fallen heroes as well as our armed forces, both in action and on peacekeeping missions, and all of the police, fire, and rescue departments stretching from sea to shining sea.  Honoring Memorial Day is actually a way to honor them.

You can start the day by displaying the American flag prominently outside your home or place of business, and by wearing it, gentlemen, on your lapel and ladies, as a pin.  You may also be moved to attend one of the many local services honoring our soldiers.  Or, you can simply take a moment from your happy holiday of Memorial Day, whether you are at home or on a beach or at a family gathering, especially one that includes children.  You can be the one to announce, “Will everyone stop what you are doing for a moment of silence, while we offer up a prayer to honor those who gave us this day by protecting our freedoms.”  You can end the remembrance with, “God Bless America.”  Thus, you will have paid your debt, as well as your respect to those who mightily deserve it. 

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