The spam e-mail from J. Crew gets right to the point: “Memorial Day Sale at J. Crew — it’s the start of summer and we’re ready to help you pack up for the pool or beach.” Indeed, Memorial Day has come to be regarded as the beginning of summer, calendars notwithstanding, just as Labor Day is heralded as the beginning of fall. Though most Americans have a general idea of what Memorial Day is about — remembrance of the country’s war dead — you would be hard pressed to find many citizens who don’t spend more of their time thinking about weekend getaways, cookouts, or just the blessed relief of a long weekend away from work.
The retailers, of course, know this better than anyone. They have their own patriotic duties to perform, and who’s to blame them? There are few things as American as commerce, and American consumerism long ago figured out how to monetize what might be called our lower case holidays. By these, I mean those days that are not observed on a specific date like December 25th or July 4th, but are shoehorned into convenient Mondays to create that venerable American institution, the three-day weekend. Each holiday seems to have taken on its own commercial identity. Memorial Day means summer wear and getaways; Labor Day is for back to school supplies and fall clothing; Presidents Day is about car sales, with makeshift Washingtons and Lincolns hawking zero percent financing on TVs and at dealerships.
With the exception of religious days, there are no American holidays anymore that do not involve the concept of celebration. And if we can celebrate Memorial Day, we can celebrate anything. Originally conceived as Decoration Day, Memorial Day’s solemn origins go back to the Civil War. It was first observed on May 30, 1868, proclaimed in the General Order of General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. That year, flowers were placed on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. There is some evidence that the practice was being conducted in the South even before the end of the war. At any rate, the holiday was recognized in all the Northern states before the turn of the century, and in the South (which continued to honor its dead on separate days) after World War I. By that time, the day had been expanded to remember those who died in all of America’s wars.
For a long while, Memorial Day was associated with red poppies, made famous by the Great War poem “In Flanders Fields.” Moina Michael, an American war worker inspired by the poem, wrote a reply:
We cherish, too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies…
Ms. Michael then began wearing red poppies on May 30th of each year, and sold them to raise money for needy servicemen. If Americans want to feel a lump in the throat at the way time changes things, try this: A Frenchwoman, Madame Guerin, heard of Ms. Michael’s work and sold red poppies in France to benefit war widows and their children. She later approached the VFW and helped persuade them to start the Buddy Poppy program, wherein disabled veterans sold artificial poppies to raise proceeds for benefits.
May 30th was the date for Memorial Day until 1971, when Congress passed, and President Nixon signed, legislation ensuring three-day weekends for a host of Federal holidays — Washington’s Birthday (which became known as Presidents Day), Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day. No longer would these holidays be observed on a specific date, but on a designated Monday nearest the traditional date on the calendar. Martin Luther King Day, when instituted in 1986, followed the format. It seemed like a perfectly innocuous and sensible change. Americans could keep their holidays and get a long weekend out of the deal, the better to travel, rest, or consume.
But not necessarily to remember. There is no way to provide statistical evidence on such matters, but it seems difficult to deny that the advent of three-day weekends for national holidays has had a gradually corrosive effect on civic memory. Having a day of remembrance like Memorial Day fall on a fixed date, whatever day of the week that may be, creates a very different dynamic than observing it as part of a three-day weekend, long marked on the calendar for leaving the office early on Friday to beat the traffic. When the holidays were observed wherever the calendar placed them, they made their presence felt more on the American consciousness. Now, at least in the popular culture, they seem more like holiday branding than anything else. Between the three-day weekends and the distortion of the days themselves — at this point, Columbus Day has become a political battlefield, and Washington is sharing his birthday with Jimmy Carter — it’s a wonder we remember anything at all.
There is some reason for hope, however, in the example of Veterans Day. Like Memorial Day, it began with a specific focus and grew to encompass a larger idea. It started as Armistice Day, in honor of the American soldiers from the Great War. After the Korean War, its mandate was expanded to honor veterans of all American military service. It too was initially swallowed up in the national maw of three-day weekends, but here its story diverges. Concerned at the effect the three-day weekend was having on the day itself, veterans groups helped pass legislation in 1978 returning the holiday to its original date: November 11th, Monday or no Monday. Not coincidentally, Veterans Day seems to have no particular association with consumer items or events.
A similar effort, to return Memorial Day to its original May 30th observation, was initiated in 1999 by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Rep. James Gibbons of Nevada. The bills have languished in committee, though, without further action. It is doubtful that Americans would look kindly upon the effort to restructure what has now become one of the signature weekends of the year. If the issue ever came to debate, it is even likely that those who push for reform would be labeled unpatriotic. A whole generation has been raised to believe that American freedom means freedom from responsibility, duty, and remembrance.
It is a long way from Decoration Day and Buddy Poppy to J. Crew and the beach.
This week, the New York Sun ran its final series of capsule obituaries of fallen American soldiers from the Iraq campaign. The paper puts the final tally of dead at 138, a number severe in human costs but infinitesimal from a military perspective. In most senses, the campaign could not have gone better or been less costly to the American military. That small fatality figure is cause for rejoicing, but it also works in a cruel way against remembrance. Since the men who died in Iraq are so few, they can seem like an aberration in the larger tale of triumph. Their small numbers are, in a sense, as difficult to grasp and understand as the immense numbers of dead in the World Wars. Such are the stubborn and sobering realities of war: that the very success of our military could work against its being appreciated.
That success, projected over a longer span of time, has won us freedoms and comforts the rest of the world can only imagine. But another sobering reality is that the fruits of these freedoms include a national culture that has enshrined creature comforts as a civic value. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that we could observe a day — even when it has the audacity not to fall on Monday — to remember those who fell for our country.