Why can’t we remember Memorial Day?

Facebook is littered this week with all sorts of things about Memorial Day–advertisements for Memorial Day sales, photos of people at Memorial Day barbecues, and scads of people wishing each other “Happy Memorial Day”–but the sad fact is that most of us can’t remember ever really knowing what Memorial Day meant (aside from the fact that it’s a three-day weekend, that is). Every now and then, you’ll see a meme or a photo designed to shock you into remorse, usually of a solider’s graveside and the caption “In case you thought it was about bbq”, but rarely do we see a *real* push to help people understand just exactly what Memorial Day actually is, and why we should care. Since I’m a teacher, first and foremost, here’s what you need to remember about Memorial Day:

It’s not just another holiday.

There are lots of “military” days on the calendar, some that we all celebrate and some that we don’t: Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day, Flag Day, the various “birthdays” of each division of the armed forces, some old days (V-E day and V-J day) and some new ones (Patriot Day). While I personally think that we should be thankful of our military personnel every day–because let’s face it, they do things on a daily basis that most of us would never be willing and/or able to do in a lifetime–each day has its own specific purpose.

Veterans Day – On November 11, 1919, then-President Woodrow Wilson addressed the nation on the first-ever Armistice Day, urging us to be grateful to those who served in WWI. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the holiday was approved by Congress and rechristened Veterans Day–and it wasn’t until 1978 that the date was cemented as November 11. Originally, the day was to honor WWI veterans, but eventually it came to honor all veterans.

Armed Forces Day – In America, Armed Forces Day is the Saturday at the end of Armed Forces Week, which begins on the second Saturday in May and ends on the third Sunday of May. It was created in 1949 to honor all those serving in the five branches of our armed forces–Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard–instead of each branch having its own day (although each branch has retained their own days: (http://militarybenefits.info/military-calendar-holidays-events-observances/).

Memorial Day – this day got its beginnings as Decoration Day, although the exact origin is open to quite a lot of debate. The general consensus, though, is that the day began with a practice of decorating the graves of veterans killed in the American Civil War. By 1890, all of the Northern states celebrated Decoration Day, although the South was a little late to the party, choosing to honor their dead on a different day until after World War I. While Memorial Day is now a national federal holiday, some states do still have a separate day set aside to honor specific groups (like Confederate war dead or the Gettysburg Remembrance Day in November each year).

What’s with the red flowers?

I’ve never been more chagrined at my own ignorance than about 13-15 years ago while traveling on the highway. We stopped at a rest area, and two older veterans were standing with little paper flowers on the sidewalk. I thought it was odd, but I just shrugged and moved on. What I didn’t realize is that those red flowers were poppies–and they have a lot of significance.

On May 3, 1915, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fallen soldier:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

One day in November 1918, a teacher, Moina Michael, happened to see a copy of McCrae’s poem. She decided that she would wear a red poppy in remembrance, and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) adopted the Remembrance Poppy idea and began using disabled and needy veterans to assemble their “Buddy” Poppies. By doing so, they can provide these veterans with financial assistance. The Buddy Poppy program “provides compensation to the veterans who assemble the poppies, provides financial assistance in maintaining state and national veterans’ rehabilitation and service programs and partially supports the VFW National Home For Children”. (https://www.vfw.org/community/community-initiatives/buddy-poppy)

Why can’t I say “Happy Memorial Day”?

While many people think that Memorial Day is a day to remember all those who have served, it’s actually a day to remember our dead… which makes it a little callous to say “Happy Dead Friends and Family Day”. Some veterans and family members take very deep offense to this, and are annoyed quite a bit by the fact that Memorial Day has been turned into a start-of-summer party. In fact, Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii campaigned for years to have the date moved back to its original date (and away from the three-day holiday), and other organizations, including the VFW, have advocated for it to change.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your three-day weekend. One of the very things our soldiers fight so valiantly for is our freedom to live our lives. Most of the soldiers and veterans I know would be first in line for that thick, juicy burger hot off the grill. But do consider taking a moment Monday at 3:00 PM and joining the country in a moment of silence to think of those who can’t snag a Coke from the cooler. And the next time you’re in line at the grocery store and you see that gentleman in front of you wearing a veterans baseball cap–maybe you might take a moment to tap him on the shoulder and thank him for his service.

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