Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day, Observed

When I was a child, Memorial Day was marked by the annual Memorial Day parade, a smaller, quieter parade, at least compared to our elaborate 4th of July display. Various community groups, scouts, and veterans groups would parade up the main street in town and end up at the VFW Post building. I confess I always thought it was kind of a boring day; no stores were open and there was no entertainment save for our little parade.

Today, Memorial Day has become known as the unofficial start to summer. And along with those other U.S. holidays, Presidents Day and Veterans Day, it has become just another 3 day weekend, conveniently scheduled on a Monday. And like those other holidays, it is one more event that retailers use as a marketing tool. Memorial Day sales are now in full swing, in case you missed the ubiquitous TV and print ads.

In fact, a Google search of "Memorial Day observances" yields 545,000 items, while a search of "Memorial Day sales" offers a stunning 4,920,000 sites. There is something sad, and very telling, in that lop-sided ratio. Years ago, my husband worked as an ad copywriter for the venerable department store Strawbridge & Clothier. The store had a policy that it would never hold a "Memorial Day" sale, finding distasteful the idea of tying a sale to the official observance of the nation's war dead. In the store's later years, sales that were held this weekend were dubbed "Hello Summer" sales, but never connected to Memorial Day.

It seems as though as a society we have forgotten what Memorial Day was intended to be, namely a day to remember those who died in service to our country. Last year I recall cringing as I saw a graphic preceding a local TV show declaring "Happy Memorial Day from channel xyz!" Happy Memorial Day? Really?

On this unofficial start to summer, I hope people will enjoy parades, picnics and gatherings of friends and family, perhaps a ball game or two. After all, our military men and women serve our country in order to ensure our freedom to do just these things. I hope to see houses flying the United States' flag, and perhaps I will even encounter a small parade on our travels this weekend. And I hope that people will pause for a moment and remember those for whom we set this day aside.

The poem, In Flanders Fields, was written during World War I and is often included in Memorial Day ceremonies. This week, the choir at my son's high school included this poem, set to music, in the spring concert. As I listened to the voices, and watched the faces of these soon-to-be-grown young men and women, I knew it was too much to hope that they would live in a world that did not add to the Memorial Day list of names. But I do have hope that they will know that Memorial Day isn't and wasn't always about getting 50% off the latest fashions, but about remembering those who gave 100% for us.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields

~Lt. Col. John MaCrae


  1. Your post spurred me to go back and learn about the origins of Memorial Day, and I found this interesting article:

    Here is an excerpt:

    "On a Monday morning that spring, nearly 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the old Washington Race Course, where wealthy Charleston planters and socialites had gathered in old times. During the final year of the war, the track had been turned into a prison camp. Hundreds of Union soldiers died there.

    "For two weeks in April, former slaves had worked to bury the soldiers. Now they would give them a proper funeral.

    "The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing "John Brown's Body.""

    It is a shame that holidays so often lose their original meaning. Thank you for spurring us to think about the real meaning of Memorial Day.

  2. Thank you for this post! It's always good to be reminded that holidays are about more than shopping and eating.

  3. The interest in Memorial Day sales compared to Memorial Day observances, as evidenced by Google search statistics–-astounding!
    Thank you for reminding us of how much we owe our men and women in uniform, and of how important Memorial day is to all of us.


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