Happy Memorial Day! Somber, Reflective Memorial Day! Merry Memorial Day?
Memorial Day! 
What is this holiday? Where did it come from? Where will it go? Why do I have “Cotton Eye Joe” stuck in my head?
What Is It?
To begin with, Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the U.S. that honors those who died in service to the United States military. In contrast to Veterans Day, which honors all veterans, Memorial Day is specifically about those who died in service. As such, using this day to recognize someone who is still alive is considered by veterans, in general, to be the equivalent of shitting on the American flag.
A veteran told me that, so it’s true. Or maybe it was a veterinarian. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe I made it up entirely. One of the three, anyway.
Memorial Day occurs on the last Monday in May. Across the country, flags are flown at half-mast until noon, and people join in a moment of rememberance at 3:00 pm local time, in a tradition that I definitely knew about before today. Aside from the official traditions, Memorial Day also serves as an unofficial start of summer. People often celebrating with barbecues and a long weekend. This is in contrast to the official start of summer, which is the first time you realize that you need to apply sunscreen to the back of your neck, too, and now you itch every time your collar rubs against it.
Where Did It Come From?
Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day,” referring to the practice of decorating the graves of Civil War casualties with flowers. Several different locations claim to be the origin of this practice, because some places really just need something.
Initially an informal thing, the practice became widely observed May 30, 1868, and first gained legal recognition in New York, 1873. The date for Decoration Day was apparently chosen because it wasn’t the date of any specific battle, and holidays in general fare better when they don’t have to carry the baggage of being on some sort of special day.
Notably, the informal decorations of soldiers’ graves that evolved into Decoration Day (and then Memorial Day) often honored soldiers from both sides of the war.
This was perhaps important to the nation’s healing, but would seem to be at odds with the more modern conception of Memorial Day, which would not seem to encompass honoring those who died in opposition to the United States military. Perhaps this is why three states continue to commemorate a separate Confederate Memorial Day, because of course they do.
|Alabama||Fourth Monday in April|
|Mississipi||Last Monday in April|
|South Carolina||May 10|
This does not include states that celebrate unofficially, or have other racism-based holidays, because I’m already running behind on this post. Either way, if you live in one of these states, you should strongly consider complaining in an online forum about how useless your state government is. If you do not live in one of these states, you probably have other reasons to do the same.
I will say that the inclusiveness of the old Decoration Day festivities may have been healthy, but going out and holding a separate day to honor Confederate soldiers…is clearly intended to send a message. I say this because it’s hard to imagine that the holiday is held because residents are mourning family members who died a hundred and sixty years ago.
Now, where was I?
As far as the debate surrounding the geographic origin of the holiday, the federal government declared in 1966 that the official birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York, their rationale being, how could they ever refuse? It feels like they win when they lose; couldn’t escape if they wanted to. Naturally, like most debates, it was easily resolved by fiat, and then everyone agreed about everything, The End.
To the astute reader who may notice that Memorial Day is not…er, generally…on May 30, you can again thank the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved the holiday to the last Monday in May, with the explicit rationale that three-day weekends are awesome.
Where Will It Go?
Okay, you might wonder why the hell I would ask a question like that. Well, some argue that we’ve all lost sight of the True Meaning of Memorial Day, and ought to go back to the way things were before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
For example, the American Legion has said:
The majority of Americans view Memorial Day as a time for relaxtion and leisure recreation rather than a solemn occasion and a time to reflect and pay tribute to the American servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives in defense of our Nation.
The general sentiment seems to be that after Memorial Day got mashed into a permanent three-day weekend, Amercians started to associate it more with barbecues and retail discounts than soldiers’ lost lives.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, in contrast to some other holidays whose dates have (or had) some sort of intrinsic meaning, the original date of Memorial Day was specifically chosen because it didn’t mean anything, and consequently that the only reason to move the date back would be to eliminate the three-day weekend. As such, it’s hard to imagine advocates of the original date as being received as anything other than Grinches telling you that fun is bad and you should feel bad for having it.
I foresee this going well.
It’s hard to discern the correct greeting for a holiday that’s all about death and sacrifice. ↩︎