It is Memorial Day weekend. The holiday that was originally known as Decoration Day is a U.S. federal holiday intended to memorialize and mourn those who died while serving in the United States armed forces. It is observed on the last Monday of May but it had been observed on May 30 when I was a boy. That was also my parents’ wedding anniversary. It was Decoration Day from 1868 to 1970 and the idea was that we would decorate the graves of soldiers, memorials to fallen soldiers, and perhaps our homes with flags and flowers.
Growing up it was a day off from school, a time to visit cemeteries, a parade in town, and some official laying of memorials on graves and at statues. As a boy, I liked the parade which had bands and all kinds of military vehicles. Veterans would do a 21-gun salute at a memorial staue in town and that was thrilling to see and hear. Every kid on my block had military toys and some kinds of military hats and clothing and playing soldiers was a common summer game. That all changed as the Vietnam War heated up and friends and neighbors went to fight and we approached our own military draft year.
Memorial Day also became the unofficial beginning of summer in the United States. Even though in New Jersey we still had school till at least the middle of June, people made their first trips down the shore. The Atlantic Ocean was cold but the boardwalks were open and if you lucked out with the weather it would be 80-90 degrees and feel like summer.
There were thunderstorms Friday night and today is on and off rain but Sunday and Monday look to be hot and summerish. We are staying home this weekend. We will see friends on Monday, probably do some barbequing, might watch a parade, but no cemetery visits. My father served in the Navy in WWII but he made a point of telling me that this day was to remember those who died as soldiers. That wasn’t him. It was those he served with who didn’t come home and have post-war lives. Armed Forces Day (which is earlier in May) is an unofficial holiday honoring those currently serving in the armed forces, and Veterans Day (November 11), which honors all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces.
Like many holidays, Memorial Day has lost some of its focus for many Americans. Turning some holidays, such as Labor Day, into three-day weekends has softened that focus. Labor Day, for example, is now more often thought of as the unofficial end of summer rather than something about workers, unions and labor.
On Monday, we have the National Moment of Remembrance. This short, simple annual event asks Americans, wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, to pause for a duration of one minute to remember those who have died in military service to the United States. That certainly is (as the expression states) the least you can do to mark the true holiday.