Has Memorial Day Lost Its Meaning?
Memorial Day has also become the unofficial start of summer in the U.S. as it occurs at the end of May, but that’s not what the holiday was originally created for. It’s the commemoration of those who died while serving in the U.S.’s armed forces. Indeed, over time, Memorial Day has also become a day to remember those who have died, whether they served in the armed forces or not.
Should the U.S. Memorial Day be about picnics, the opening of swimming pools and the first visit to the beach, as well as the lowering of flags to half-staff and parades?
Civil War Origins of Memorial Day
General John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans), originally called for Memorial Day to be observed on May 30, 1868, to remember the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the Civil War. As of 1971, the holiday has fallen on the last Monday in May, after Congress passed the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act under which four holidays including Memorial Day were moved from fixed dates to a Monday to create a three-day weekend.
John Raughter, communications director for the American Legion, is one who contends that Memorial Day should again be held on May 30, to restore its original significance. A number of countries around the world celebrate similar commemorative holidays on certain dates of historical significance — should the U.S.?
Equivalents to Memorial Day in Other Countries
Remembrance Day is observed in Canada, the U.K., South Africa, Kenya, India, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries on November 11. It was at the eleventh hour of November 11, 1918, that the hostilities of World War I officially ended with the signing of the Armistice by the Allies of WWI and Germany. In a number of countries, the tradition is to hold either one or two minutes of silence at 11:00 am. Wreaths, often made of red poppies, are placed on grave sites and memorials to fallen soldiers.
November 11 is also a holiday in the U.S., Veteran’s Day, to honor those who have served in the armed forces. In Belgium, France, Serbia and New Zealand, November 11 is Armistice Day, in commemoration of the signing of the Armistice.
In Israel, Yom Hazikaron is a “Day of Remembrance” that is held on the day before the country’s Independence Day, as a “General Memorial Day for the Heroes of the War of Independence.” Yom Hazikaron is dedicated to commemorating soldiers and, more recently, civilians who have died as as result of political violence or terrorism. It begins with a one-minute siren at 8:00 pm the preceding evening (according to the Hebrew calendar, a day begins a sunset), during which Israelis stop whatever they are doing and observe a moment of silence. A siren is also heard the next day at 11:00 am.
In South Korea, June 6 is celebrated as Memorial Day to honor those who fell in the Korean War and other major wars. At 10:00am, a siren rings all over the country, followed by silent prayers; a ten-minute silence is observed at a ceremony at the country’s National Cemetery. Since South Korea and North Korea are still at war (and with the latter country having recently been threatening military action), Memorial Day in South Korea has added significance.
Russia observes Victory Day to commemorate the surrender of Nazi Germany to Soviet Union in the Second World War. The holiday was celebrated earlier this month with a huge show of 11,000 troops and 101 military hardware parading in Moscow’s Red Square; 68 fighter jets and helicopters also were displayed. That is, Victory Day emphasizes the current military might of Russia.
China observes Army Day to commemorate the August 1, 1927 Nanchang Uprising in which the Communists fought against the Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party). The holiday also marks the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army, which is now the largest armed force in the world and whose cyber unit has recently been connected to several hacking attacks on U.S. companies. As in Russia, Army Day involves an elaborate show of China’s current military power with displays of troops and weapons.
What Should Be the Purpose of the U.S.’s Memorial Day?
In the U.S., where ceremonial displays of the armed forces are not as extensive as in Russia and China, it can be argued that the meaning of Memorial Day is enriched by having it include not only ceremonies to honor the dead, but to be a time for life-affirming rituals such as sharing meals together and reveling in the coming of summer.
Another reference to ancient history may be illustrative. During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.) that Athens fought against Sparta, the orphans of those who had died in battle were paraded before citizens at an annual festival, the city’s Dionysia, held in honor of the god Dionysius and in the month of Elaphebolion (the end of March to the beginning of April, roughly). The parading of children who had lost their fathers was a powerful reminder of the costs of the fighting, as well as a way to remind citizens of what they were fighting for. The intent was to remember and to honor and not just on a specific date, but for a long, long time.
Should the U.S. Memorial Day be solely devoted to commemorating fallen soldiers or left as what it has evolved into, a day of remembrance that heralds the beginning of summer?
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