If you did not give it much thought Memorial Day might seem like something of a paradox.
Held the last Monday in May, its position on the calendar creates a three-day weekend marking — unofficially — the beginning of summer. In this sense, it is a celebration with barbequing, picnics, and outdoor play. Yet Memorial Day is, perhaps, the most solemn of American national holidays, created to honor and remember those who have died serving in the American military.
The city of Waterloo, New York is credited with beginning the Memorial Day tradition when on May 5, 1866 the town folk collectively decorated the graves of those killed in the Civil War. Grave decoration was quite popular in the North after the Civil War, but Waterloo was particularly persistent, continuing to hold its Decoration Day as an annual event.
Waterloo’s devotion inspired General John Alexander Logan, who was the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was a fraternal organization for Civil War veterans. General Logan issued General Order No. 11, designating May 30, 1868 for “the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
In 1882, the holiday’s name changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, and by 1890, most states had some form of Memorial Day established to honor those, who for the sake of freedom and unity, had given their lives. In 1971, it became an official federal holiday.
The last Monday in May in America is often a beautiful day. It is that time of year when the warm weather has begun to take up full-time residency and the day’s respite from work becomes a sort of sunny, mini-vacation.
There have been some who for many good reasons argued that when Memorial Day moved from May 30, as General Logan had set it, to the last Monday of the month, something of the respect, honor, and solemnity the occasion demands was lost, creating the paradox of gravely remembering those who have died and yet having a party.
But there is another sense wherein these two seemingly different emotions and activities follow neatly one to the next. If those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines honored on Memorial Day had not acted, had not responded to freedom’s call, had not served and died, we might live in a very different world — a world not worthy of celebration. When on Memorial Day, we grill out, play catch with the kids, or otherwise enjoy the day, we are, perhaps, doing those things in honor of the fallen who make them possible.