Holidays tend to get associated with certain commercial trends.
“President’s day,” which is officially speaking the Washington’s Birthday holiday, seems to have developed an association with buying mattresses (explain that one).
Easter has candy.
Cinco de Mayo has beer. So does St. Patrick’s Day.
Halloween has, in addition to candy, an inexplicable number of costumes labeled “Sexy.”
And Christmas has, well, everything you can possibly spend money on.
Memorial Day, meanwhile, happens to fall in that part of the calendar where car dealers are vigorously trying to move the last of the previous model year, and also make their end-of-month sales goals, so it has developed as the holiday for buying a car (I have done this myself several times, to good financial advantage).
But in every case, the commercial motive tends to obscure the real meaning of the holiday, making these events seem like merely more days on which the objective is spending money and goofing off.
This is particularly true of Memorial Day, which doesn’t have an anchor in a specific historical or religious event, such as a battle, a birthday, or a day honoring a saint.
It is, by holiday standards, a rather high-concept event. And that means it can lead to some peculiarly off-point commemorations, such as, say, buying a car, or wishing someone a “Happy Memorial Day.”
People seem generally aware that the “memorial” part of the day has something to do with the military, and therefore they assume it has something to do with veterans. It’s never a bad thing to honor veterans, but they have their own day – Nov. 11, celebrated to honor the day the Great War ended in Europe in 1918.
Memorial Day has a much more specific meaning: to honor those who fought but, unlike the veterans we celebrate in November, never got to come home. It is, therefore, a somber holiday, despite all the festivities that attend it.
It started during the Civil War, with widows, mothers, and families on both sides visiting their cemeteries to decorate the graves of the fallen. In fact, it was originally called “Decoration Day.” There is some dispute about where and how the tradition started, and the dates differed widely by region, but by the end of the war and in the years immediately afterward, people all over the country were observing a “Decoration Day,” planting flags and flowers on the graves of soldiers.
The name “Memorial Day” appeared in the 1880s, as the divisions and bitterness of the war faded and the country began to move forward together, though it didn’t become the formal legal name until the 1960s. The dates remained fluid for a while, but eventually Americans settled on May 30, at least until 1971, when Congress set it on the last Monday in May, creating the now-familiar three-day weekend.
There will be plenty of fun things to do this Memorial Day weekend, from parades and cookouts to the concert on the National Mall and the running of the Indy 500. There will be beer, food, and, of course, outstanding values on automobiles.
But as you’re taking advantage of the first three-day weekend of the summer season, please pause on Monday to remember the serious side of this holiday: the men and women who fought for a cause and gave their last full measure of devotion.