Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States. For those of you who don’t live here, it’s the day we honor our military veterans, as opposed to Veterans’ Day, which is the day we honor our military veterans. Confused? So are most Americans.
Memorial Day is a child of the Civil War and mid-19th century death rituals, combining the spring ritual of cleaning and beautifying the family cemetery plot with honoring the far too many soldiers who had died during the Civil War (1861 – 1865). Ironically, the combination seems to have begun in the South to honor the rebel dead, but the May 30 date for the holiday (before it shifted to a Monday holiday) was that adopted in the North to honor the Union dead. The holiday was also long known as Decoration Day, reflecting its composite nature. Over time, the connection to the Civil War has been mostly forgotten, and the rituals of cleaning the family cemetery lots have been reduced to having government authorities plant flags on veterans’ graves, whether they died in combat or not. The connection to the Civil War hasn’t been entirely forgotten in the South, however, where eleven states still celebrate a separate Confederate Memorial Day (under various names).
One would have thought that a date to commemorate fallen soldiers would be directly connected to a war, but May 30 had no such connection. For that, we turn to Veterans Day, which is celebrated on November 11. This used to be called Armistice Day, because it celebrated the end of fighting in the “war to end all wars,” the First World War, in 1918. (Ignore the fact that American soldiers kept on fighting in Russia for months afterwards.) World War Two had a bigger impact on Americans, but Congress decided that it did not want to start celebrating the end of every war as a holiday, so Armistice Day became Veterans Day and was stripped of its specific history. Oddly enough, officially the United States did celebrate the end of World War Two, Victory (over Japan) Day, for almost thirty years, but the holiday got little attention. It is still celebrated in Rhode Island, much to the embarrassment of state officials when hosting a Japanese trade delegation in the 1990s.
This curious state of affairs, two holidays celebrating veterans, has been rationalized by claiming that Memorial Day specifically honors soldiers who died in our wars (although not necessarily in battle) , while Veterans Day honors all those who served in the military. Making the situation even odder, while both holidays were converted to Monday holidays in 1971 (thanks to lobbying by the tourism industry), Veterans Day was converted back to the historically significant date of November 11 in 1978, even though that date is irrelevant to what is now the holiday’s official meaning. Admittedly, the reason for the shift probably had less to do with history, and more to do with the uncomfortable closeness of the Monday-holiday version of Veterans Day to Halloween, an association that displeased veterans’ organizations.
Memorial Day was always the bigger holiday when I was growing up in New England, both for our town and for me personally. It’s a tradition in many communities for the veterans to march in a parade on Memorial Day, and in the 1960s that was a big event in my home town. There were a lot of veterans of World War II, including my father, and they had big families, so there would always be a large turnout. Other civic groups and organizations would also take part in the parade, so it was a big deal.
On top of that, my father was the town’s veterans’ agent in those days, which meant he was the part-time town employee helping veterans get their state and Federal benefits. One of his jobs was to put small American flags in the markers by every veteran’s grave in both town cemeteries. This was a task he delegated to us kids (though under his supervision), and my brother and sister and I would spend a wonderful spring day running through both cemeteries, trying to find all the markers and place flags in them. To this day, when I think of Memorial Day, the memory of planting flags in the cemetery is what comes to mind first and foremost.