In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday, designating the last Monday in May as a day to honor the country’s fallen service members. But the holiday originated much earlier in 1868 as Decoration Day, after the American Civil War.
It was then that the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate holiday traditions, celebrated on different days, had merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military service.
As a kid, I never experienced the day as something that celebrated our country’s militarism. The women of our family typically visited the graves of several generations of our ancestors to remember them with flowering plants, whether they served in the military or not. I regarded Memorial Day as a time to remember all the dead. I still do.
As a child of the Vietnam era, the idea of “war dead” has lost its patriotic luster. Now I see war as something that is created by cynical politicians, and politicians are not to be trusted. I see soldiers as victims of war.
More significantly for me, Memorial Day marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.
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