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Our view: A day to honor, not celebrate

The bloody battles of the Civil War were still raging when women in the South began decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers. After the war, a day was set aside -- "Decoration Day" -- to remember and to pay tribute to soldiers' ultimate sacr...

Cartoonist's view
(Jeff Parker / Cagle Cartoons)

The bloody battles of the Civil War were still raging when women in the South began decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers. After the war, a day was set aside -- "Decoration Day" -- to remember and to pay tribute to soldiers' ultimate sacrifices.

That inaugural Decoration Day, on May 30, 1868, drew some 5,000 Americans who helped place flowers and flags on the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Gen. James Garfield, who would go on to become the last of the "log cabin presidents," delivered a stirring speech. And in communities across the country, ceremonies and commemorations were held. Today, more than 20 cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, as tomorrow's holiday is now known.

For decades, Memorial Day was "a solemn day of mourning (and) a sacred day of remembrance to honor those who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms," as the nonprofit usmemorialday.org aptly states. "Businesses closed for the day. Towns held parades honoring the fallen. ... Memorial Day speeches were given and prayers (were) offered up. People took the time that day to clean and decorate with flowers and flags the graves of those the fell in service to their country."

But the holiday has lost its way; the day's original intent has become obscured and forgotten, Memorial Day advocates argue at the website, which was created in 1994 by a University of Tennessee class and is maintained now by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

"Too many people 'celebrate' the day without more than a casual thought to (its) purpose and meaning," they wrote. "How do we honor the 1.8 million that gave their life for America since 1775? How do we thank them for their sacrifice?

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"We need to put the memorial back in Memorial Day and observe the day as it was originally intended."

The position is hard to argue. How many of us treat Memorial Day as just the start of summer, as just the third day of a three-day weekend away from work or as just a chance to barbecue, relax or maybe hit a mattress sale? How many of us can honestly say we aren't guilty?

And how many of us support recapturing and restoring Memorial Day, setting it aside once gain for reflection and honor? The cause is an easy one around which to rally.

But not to the point of a movement first launched in the late 1990s to designate May 30 as Memorial Day rather than the last Monday in May. Bills have been introduced in Congress at least twice -- thankfully, without major action -- and a push for the change swells around this time every year.

Americans don't need to give up a three-day weekend to remember the importance and original intent of Memorial Day or to appropriately honor those who fell in battle, assuring our freedoms.

We owe it to them, and to our nation, to at least take a moment this weekend -- perhaps even a reflectively long moment -- to pay tribute, just as women in the South first did in the 1860s.

We can enjoy our holiday. But we should never ignore or forget its deeper meaning.

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