Does it feel funny to you to wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day?”
It does to me.
On the one hand, wishing someone a “Happy Memorial Day” or a great holiday weekend is the same thing as wishing them happiness on any other day. These people would probably say that we’re just overthinking it, and they may well be right.
But Memorial Day is one of those days that takes on a special significance in which “happiness” doesn’t seem like the proper fit.
The Memorial Day we commemorate today began as Decoration Day in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. Decoration Day was a day the graves of the war dead were adorned with flowers to remember the sacrifices that had been made. The first large observance happened at Arlington National Cemetery that year.
But local commemorations of the day — or something like it — were already underway as early as 1866, so the claim to be “first” is a bone of contention.
Originally, the day was focused on the Civil War losses, but it wasn’t until after World War I that the day’s meaning was expanded to honor the dead in all American wars.
The latest fact sheet from the Department of Veterans Affairs tabulated the total war dead between 1775 and 1991 (from the Revolutionary War through Operation Desert Storm), at roughly 1.19 million. That figure includes battle deaths and other deaths in and out of theater, but does not include those lost since October, 2001 in the War on Terror.
To this day, people bristle at the focus of so many people on fun events like cookouts and fireworks on a day meant to pause and give a nod of respect and gratitude to those casualties. Some who receive such criticism argue, often in a “mind your own business” tone, that it was the sacrifice of those veterans who allow such freedoms to exist today.
Still, I hope everyone will take a moment over the course of the day to stop and at least be grateful to the men and women who were willing to face those sacrifices.
Regardless of what you do on Memorial Day, that moment of appreciation is what the day is about.