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Considering what Memorial Day means

by Ginger Costen

The television ads show people playing in swimming pools or grilling on the new super fancy barbecue. Kids splash in the lake as family and friends drive up in their new cars or campers. “Don’t miss the first big weekend of summer,” Toyota says as the red white and blue flags wave in the background and the fancy sports car zips around a curve along the coastal highway of Maine.

The print ads talk about early summer discounts for new clothes and patio furniture. “The best prices before the official start of summer,” states the Sears ad. While Kohl’s promises that everyone will get Kohl’s cash to spend on their big Memorial Day sale, Target is saying no one can beat their quality and low prices.

I look at the ads and wonder if anyone even knows why we have a “Memorial Day”?  Is it one more holiday that has lost its meaning? One more reason for someone to throw a party and spend lots of money without any idea what the holiday is really about and why it was once one of the most important days of the year… for an American.

According to, Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday wherein the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces are remembered. The holiday, which is celebrated every year on the final Monday of May, was formerly known as Decoration Day and originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died. By the 20th century however, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in military service.

So if Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, what is Veterans Day? Well, again according to Wikipedia, Veteran’s Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans. Okay, then how and why have we allowed a day that should be held as special as Christmas (I’ll give you my email address now, [email protected], because I’m sure I’ll get responses on that) and as important as the 4th of July to be so insignificantly pedestrian as the official start of the summer? 

Maybe it started with it being called Decoration Day?

The first mention of an annual Decoration Day was in the mid-to-late 1860s when on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in rural areas of the American South, people would gather at a family graveyard and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with kinfolk and friends. There was often a religious service and a “dinner on the ground,” (which, by the way, is the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass).

Okay that sounds like a picnic to me and not a reason to have a three-day weekend and call it Memorial Day.

After the Civil War the various women’s groups such as the Women's Relief Corps and the Women's Auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic in the North and the Ladies Memorial Association and the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the South each started movements to honor the fallen military. Statues were built and formal activities were initiated ,each gaining strength with community participation and involvement.

Even though the North and South certainly each had their own way and customs of honoring the graves, it’s still not the beginning of how we celebrate this emotionally significant day as this practice began before the American Civil War. Tradition and appreciation also brought loved ones of the Revolutionary War soldiers’ to decorate graves with flowers and clean up cemeteries after the long harsh New England / Northeast winters.

So when did one of the greatest countries in the world become so focused on having another three-day weekend? And why did this same country - that was built on freedom and respect for those who have sacrificed everything just so we could have and cherish those God-given inalienable rights - let this happen? Who took away the parades, the speeches and the flags and replaced them with Kohl’s cash, a barbecue and suntan lotion? How long before our children, grandchildren and all the generations after we’ve gone look at the calendar and ask, “Why do we call it Memorial Day?”

The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day” and was first used in 1882. It became more common after World War II, and was declared the official name by Federal law in 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend.

Surprised? No, I wasn’t either. 

The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. And after some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted the Congressional change of date within a few years.

So we brought this on ourselves? We allowed our elected officials to change the date merely to create another three-day weekend thus diluting the very meaning of the day. Why? For Kohl’s cash? For Toyota?

Well not for this Daughter of the American Revolution woman nor her family!

As long as I’m alive my children, grandchildren, great or even great-great-great (don’t laugh my grandmother lived to be 104 years-young) grandchildren will know because each year on May 30th we’ll visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service.

They’ll know because there’s an American flag waving high over the Court of Honor in Webster, Massachusetts and the flowers beds of our memorial veteran sites will be alive with red, white and blue flowers that they helped me plant.

And so will everyone else that visits looking for information on Memorial Day because to my surprise Wikipedia is using a photo of Webster’s very own Court of Honor as an example of a small New England town celebrating Memorial Day.  Check it out at

Please remember the reason for the season – it’s not the first day of summer. It’s a day to remember those who died for our freedom.