It seems like most of the pundits like to spend a moment on Memorial Day talking about returning meaning to the day.
Actually, it seems like EVERY holiday there has to be someone talking about returning meaning to the day. As if there’s something wrong with enjoying a day off and spending it in hedonistic ways.
I’m thinking this is an American thing. Since I’m so international now. But last Monday was Victoria Day in, well, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (I have to specify this now because you WOULD NOT believe how many people hear “Columbia” and right away think of South America.) However, if you’re thinking that Victoria Day is to Victoria what Bailey Days is to Bailey, Colorado, you’re not thinking British enough. They’re celebrating the queen. Which seems to involve having a parade and hanging out. There were no articles in the paper musing over the true meaning of the day, or asking people to devote thought at an arranged time:
As Memorial Day approaches, it is time to pause and consider the true meaning of this holiday. Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values. While we should honor these heroes every day for the profound contribution they have made to securing our Nation’s freedom, we should honor them especially on Memorial Day.
That was from an end-of-days executive order from President Clinton. It’s a patriotic thing. Everyone agrees that it’s wonderful to salute and revere our soldiers. Everyone can feel good about saying nice words, giving a toast, devoting a thought. On this one day. Well besides Veterans Day. And Independance Day. And Flag Day. Actually, there are fully seven military holidays.
Memorial Day means nothing to me. My dad was a US Air Force fighter pilot who died in the line of duty when I was three years old. I went through a brief spell when I was a teenager, when I was swept up in the holiday. I suggested to my mom that we drive down to the cemetary at the academy in Colorado Springs to decorate his grave on Memorial Day.
“Why?” she asked me. “Do you think he’s there?”
No. No, I didn’t. She said we could go, but that she didn’t think he was there either, amidst those rows of stark white identical stones. It wouldn’t be for him that we were going. It’s something to think about, how much the dead care about their graves and what the living do with them. Restoring the “meaning” of a holiday like Memorial Day is generating a particular show for the living.
It’s interesting to me that Memorial Day is the modern version of Decoration Day, which was the day that graves were decorated. Official versions of this day were acknowledged by various states following the Civil War. Unofficially, this puts me in mind of rituals like the Day of the Dead. These are less patriotic and sanitized and speak more towards the pagan connection to visitations from the dead. The Day of the Dead is ascribed to Mexican and Latino practices, but this kind of ritual has been prevalent for ages in the Celtic and Roman cultures also. For example:
On Palm Sunday, in several villages in South Wales, a custom prevails of cleaning the grave-stones of departed friends and acquaintances, andornamenting them with flowers, &c. On the Saturday preceding, a troop ofservant girls go to the churchyard with pails and brushes, to renovatethe various mementos of affection, clean the letters, and take awaythe weeds. The next morning their young mistresses attend,with thegracefulness of innocence in their countenances, and the roses of healthand beauty blooming on their cheeks. According to their fancy, and according to the state of the season, they place on the stonessnow-drops, crocuses, lilies of the valley, and roses.
Nothing about the military dead there.
I don’t mind so much the effort to restore meaning. What I mind is the modification of meaning to serve political ends. So, if you pause today, at the recommended time or no, to reflect upon the meaning of this day, make it your own.