Friday, May 28, 2010

Memorial Day

I'm not going to wish anyone a "Happy" Memorial Day this weekend.
Memorial Day isn't supposed to be a 'happy' holiday.

A sad reality of our consumer-driven society
is the loss of some of our meaningful national holidays.
Or, I guess I should qualify that to say that the holiday isn't lost,
but the original meaning of the holiday has changed.

Memorial Day.
A day set aside to
those brave men and women who died defending and protecting freedom at home and abroad,
has devolved into 3 things. But first, what is the history of Memorial day? To find out,
I looked up its origins on that great fount of all knowledge and wisdom - Wiki.

Originally know as "Decoration Day", it had its beginnings as a day set aside to honor the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. The first "official" Decoration Day took place on May 5, 1866, and the support of 2 Civil War generals was instrumental in promoting the holiday. On May 5, 1868, one of those generals issued a proclamation that Decoration Day be observed nationwide. The date of May 30th was chosen because it was NOT the anniversary of any of the many, many Civil War battles.

Many southern states refused to play along as there was still some lingering bad blood, and besides, hardly any of them Yankee soldiers were buried in the South. Rising above the sore losers was Columbus, Mississippi (defended during the Civil War by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, of "Forrest Gump" fame). In their Decoration Day observances in 1866, they honored both Confederate and Union soldiers. The good ladies of the church decorated the 'graves of the glorious dead' (movie reference) with flowers, not caring which side they fought for. Poet Francis Miles Finch was there that day and was so moved that he wrote "The Blue and the Grey" in commemoration.

But, really, the first observance of a memorial to the fallen soldiers played out a little differently. According to Professor David Blight of Yale University, it was observed by freed slaves at the Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers toward the end of the war, and those who died there were buried in a mass grave. As soon as the war ended, the former slaves exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and gave them proper burials in individual graves. A fence was erected around it all and it was declared a Union graveyard. They accomplished all this in just 10 days. Afterward, a crowd of around 10,000, mostly black but including some Union veterans, gathered there for sermons, speeches, singing, and picnics, thereby creating the first Decoration Day. By the end of the century, the bodies had been moved to nearby national cemeteries.

It wasn't called "Memorial Day " until 1882, and the new name wasn't really very common until after WWII. It became official in 1967.

Then, in 1968, Congress, decided that it really would be more convenient for workers to have certain holidays on a Monday, thereby giving them a 3-day weekend. So they enacted the the Uniform Holidays Bill, which took Washington's Birthday (now defunct), Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veteran's Day and moved them all to a Monday. Veteran's Day, however, rose up in rebellion and got to go back to it's original date.

(After all, American workers are deserving of a bit of a break now & then, since they work longer hours, on average, than most of the rest of the industrialized world. That's why we have Labor Day, right? A day to honor the American labor force by having huge sales on items made in China and other countries that exploit low-paid workers ;-)

Japan did the same thing, only they called theirs the "Happy Monday System". I think I like that name better.

So, here's why I am sad for Memorial Day:
  • An excuse for a 3-day weekend. It didn't used to be a 3-day weekend. It was a fixed holiday on May 30. There are now some groups and individuals that advocate returning it back to its original date to try to preserve the meaning of the day instead of relegating it to the status of an excuse to get a day off work.

  • The newspapers are chock-full of sale ads, promoting the remembrance of Memorial Day by buying stuff we mostly don't need and putting it houses that are too cluttered anyway.

  • It now heralds the 'official' start of the summer tourist & vacation season. Sitting on the beach in a skimpy bathing suit soaking up some skin cancer (or watching cars with giant engines drive around in circles) is just a dandy way to honor the dead, don't you think?
How many fly a flag on Memorial Day?
How many lay flowers at someone's grave?
How many take a moment of silence to remember & honor those who died?
Many do, but not enough.

The Blue and the Gray
Francis Miles Finch

By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other, the Gray.

These in the robings of glory,
Those in the gloom of defeat,
All with the battle-blood gory,
In the dusk of eternity meet:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day
Under the laurel, the Blue,
Under the willow, the Gray.

From the silence of sorrowful hours
The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers
Alike for the friend and the foe;
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day;
Under the roses, the Blue,
Under the lilies, the Gray.

So with an equal splendor,
The morning sun-rays fall,
With a touch impartially tender,
On the blossoms blooming for all:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Broidered with gold, the Blue,
Mellowed with gold, the Gray.

So, when the summer calleth,
On forest and field of grain,
With an equal murmur falleth
The cooling drip of the rain:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment -day,
Wet with the rain, the Blue
Wet with the rain, the Gray.

Sadly, but not with upbraiding,
The generous deed was done,
In the storm of the years that are fading
No braver battle was won:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Under the blossoms, the Blue,
Under the garlands, the Gray

No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day,
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.


Rosie Hawthorne said...

Very nice post.

Sista G said...

Rootie - that was very moving and well expressed. Thanks!