For many, Memorial Day conjures up images of backyard cookouts, the end of a school year, and the start of summer. If you work for a bank or an arm of the government, it means a holiday from the 9 to 5. If you work in retail, you know you are going to be extra busy with sales bringing in more customers. To veterans, it conjures up images of service, the ultimate service: Death while serving our country.
The topic of death and the actual meaning of Memorial Day is less palatable than discussing a good sale, or what to bring to the barbecue. However uncomfortable it makes us, we should take it upon ourselves to acknowledge our history as a country and like all good stories — continue to share them with each generation so that they are remembered and remain in the fabric of our culture. Lessons on Memorial Day should start at home, and continue in our school system.
Memorial Day was born from the ashes of the Civil War of the United States. The Veterans Association created the holiday, choosing a random day in May when no battles were fought, and plenty of flowers were in bloom. The original name was Decoration Day, a federal holiday to honor and mourn the fallen and decorate the graves. The holiday was an intentional act to help the country come together — to heal the pain from bitter dissensions, and for the many lives lost, of loved ones never returning from the battlefields.
Following the Civil War, the nation survived despite incredible odds that it would not. Most Americans take it for granted that the United States endured the divisive rhetoric and actions of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln knew he had a challenge ahead of him when he urged healing and unifying as a country in his famous Gettysburg address.
Lincoln stated, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived (one conceived in Liberty) and so dedicated (one dedicated to Equality) can long endure.”
It is a disturbing thought that many believed during the aftermath of the Civil War that our country was not assured to move past the pain of the war and re-unite as one. And yet, here we are.
It’s been often said, but still holds true: In order to know where you are going, you need to know where you have been. Memorial Day is not the most pleasant of holidays due to its original and fundamental purpose, but one we must acknowledge the true origins of our families.
By being aware of the meaning of Memorial Day, we can take the opportunity to remind ourselves and our families of the importance of acknowledging history, the importance of forgiveness and healing, and the importance of loyalty to our country.
What does this look like as leaders in our family? How do we carry this off in a relevant fashion? Do we have hurt feelings we carry around within us? Do we feel marginalized as voices in our local political arena? What issues would we like to see changed? And when will we gather the guts to do something about it? Or will we continue to whine behind our Starbucks lattes and Facebook posts? How do we take our convictions and put them in some sort of productive action?
I believe that even voting is an action, as well as reading a variety of periodicals to learn both sides of an issue. How many of us go to the effort to attend our city council meetings and see how things work? How many of us pull the car over to meet the candidates? All these activities could involve our children, and become a family activity.
We could engage with our families by discussing Lincoln at the dinner table, or we could have a movie night around the Memorial Day holiday and watch a good Civil War saga, like “North and South.” We could walk through an historic gravesite and look online to learn more about the individuals found in the historic resting place. We could take one person, one veteran, and learn about patriotism on an individual level. All these activities are worthwhile, without question.
And we could be part of history. We could lead by example. We can make it a priority to read, to form opinions, to offer our homes to meet and discuss issues, to get involved in causes that promote positive change and growth. We could honor our country by upholding the ideas of our Constitution. We could start with our local issues; we could stand tall and show our younger generation what it looks like to be capable of strengthening freedom and liberty for all.
May we print and post and work into our lives Abraham Lincoln’s words when he urged survivors — because we all are the survivors, the living, we the citizens of the United States of America — in his Gettysburg Address:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
They did not die in vain.
We celebrate Memorial Day to remember that freedom is precious and that liberty for all is the very core of our country. Each day ends, and a new one begins; may we take the pain of the past from a national level to a family level, and emerge as leaders for positive growth — with liberty and justice for ALL.