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Monday, May 30, 2011

School Bell: Memorial Day

When I was a child national holidays were scattered all through the week.  The fell on the date of the anniversary being commemorated.  Then the idea of standardizing holidays on the Monday closest to the anniversary become widespread.  Now holidays are convenient.  But, something has been lost.  For my father, and his generation of World War II veterans VE Day [Victory in Europe] and VJ Day [Victory in Japan] were vivid days. Memorial Day is a bit different because it began as a wide variety of individual days when individual communities and states marked their Civil War losses. They were days when the graves of veterans were marked with wreaths and flags and flowers.  It was even called Decoration Day. In Virginia it was tied to a June 9th battle, In Waterloo, New York, May 5, etc. etc. . But when the holiday began to consolidate on May 30, supposedly that date was chosen because it was NOT a battle anniversary making it more inclusive.

After World War I it began to recognize all war losses and the graves of all veterans began to be marked or "decorated" on Decoration Day.  As the beginnings faded farther into the past it became a generic day of memorial with cemetery visits of all kinds, but parades featuring veterans still the norm and associated enough with war to bother pacifists and war-protestors over the years. Lately it seems more noted as the start of tourist season, or big auto races [the Indianapolis 500 race [since 1911] and the Coca-Cola Classic 600 [since 1960]]. I still remember when the name changed officially to Memorial Day [in 1967!].

When I was a child the school always addressed Decoration Day/Memorial Day with history lessons, civic lessons, and writing assignments. Having been an impressionable teen and young adult during the Vietnam War era I am painfully familiar with the strong emotions connected to any conflict, but also painfully familiar with the strong emotions from the losses of conflicts.  Today my children's teachers seem to totally ignore the origins of Memorial Day, only commenting on it in terms of the day off from school. The rare teacher who addresses it is often criticized for being to "pro-war" or "anti-war."

So what are teachers to do?  What are parents to say when explaining why there is a "holiday" today?  I would hope that we can separate memorializing war from memorializing people who meant so much to those who loved them. When we see the aging and young veterans marching or see the flags on gravestones, we are not honoring war we are honoring people.  Besides... even if you take the view that the day is to remember war, maybe remembering war better will help us work to create peace. So, maybe this is a combo school bell history point and soapbox today, but such as it is, those are my thoughts today.


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