Memorial Day was established to remember the men and women who have died while serving in the United States military. That is an important concept, and while many people can and do commemorate the holiday in the intended manner, the day’s meaning often gets buried under trips to the beach and poolside barbecues. I regret to announce that I am a member of the foolish multitudes who has lost sight of Memorial Day’s purpose.
I wonder if there comes a time when a holiday outgrows its intention. Various pundits argue annually that Christmas has gone from a observance of the birth of the man widely regarded as a messiah to a corporation-driven celebration of consumerism. And don’t even get me started on the crazies who think Christmas is purposefully being warred upon by all sorts of dirty liberals. The good news is that if such a war is quietly being waged, there will be no casualties to remember on a day like today. The “War On Christmas” is probably the lowest-stakes conflict that the US has ever been involved in.
So if a holiday as seemingly sacred as Christmas can find its nature warped, why can’t Memorial Day? (Good news for Christmas: if you spell it with a lower case “c,” the iPhone still auto-capitalizes it. That’s respect.) If the traditional observance has shifted from placing flags on gravestones at cemeteries to hiking with Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin, well then what can we do about that? If you can’t beat them, join them, right?
But just because the meaning of a holiday can change, that doesn’t mean it shoud. Christmas lost meaning as soon as it became a national holiday. We are a predominantly Christian nation, but we are not a “Christian Nation.” At this point Christmas is always associated with vacation, and time off work. That’s certainly what I think about. In that case the holiday becomes a totem of freedom and relaxation. How can anyone be expected to think about Jesus (if, in fact, you are expected to think about Jesus) with such thoughts dancing through their heads. The same can be said for Memorial Day, which has been the final mile marker before summer for generations of school children (and their teachers).
Perhaps I’m advocating for revoking Memorial Day’s status as a holiday. Or at least its status as a guaranteed “day off.” I know – as someone who really doesn’t like his job, that doesn’t sound like something I would do. But maybe it would bring the meaning back to the day. Something like Yom Kippur (which the iPhone doesn’t automatically capitalize) – the Jewish day of atonement – does not always come with a day off, so any hoops you might have to jump through to take it off only add to the significance of the holiday. Let’s say you work at a school that doesn’t give you a rolling holiday to use in a situation like that, and you have to use one of your precious vacation days to observe – well, that is certainly going to drive home the importance of the day in question.
Alas, the human species does not easily change – on a social or a genetic level (just ask the x-men, who also don’t warrant auto-caps). Memorial Day will forever be a “bank holiday,” so it will be valued more for that fact than for whatever it used to represent. Ultimately it will fall to individuals to keep the meaning alive. Maybe with a discussion of the true meaning of Memorial Day between beers and burgers. It would certainly be more enlightening than a discussion of the true meaning of Christmas. Uh-oh, did another Hollywood liberal just fire a shot across the bow of Christianity? Better load up the old-timey muskets, Jebediah. This battle will not be short.