Memorial Day

It’s history lesson time, friends.

Contrary to what businesses and film promoters would like us to believe, today is not about sales and deals and going out to watch the newest blockbuster. It’s not about taking advantage of a three-day weekend to go to King’s Dominion or Six Flags or lay out under the sun at your neighborhood pool and maybe attend a barbeque.

The day originally started out as “Decoration Day,” following the reunification of the states after the Civil War. It was a day to remember the fallen soldiers – primarily of the North, as it was the northern states that embraced the holiday first – and remark on the trials of war. It was, for the most part, a commemoration enacted by the people in small towns and rural areas, as the larger cities garnered their populations from recent immigrants who had not participated in the war.

As the generation who had lived through the Civil War grew older and eventually passed away, the observance of Memorial Day started to fade. Veteran’s Day – originally “Armistice Day,” begun by veterans of WWI – began to take greater importance. It was about this time that more people started looking on the day as more of a “let’s go to the beach” type of day, rather than “Hey, maybe we should go put some flowers on grampa’s grave and say thank you” day. That changed a bit in the 1980s, when Reagan and his buddies decided to revive the observance of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day wasn’t always celebrated on the last Monday of May. Officially, May 30th was designated as Memorial Day. And, as we all know, May 30th doesn’t always fall on the same day of the week. I’m a little unclear on when, exactly, the observance was moved to create a three-day weekend. A part of me kind of wishes it were still celebrated like Veteran’s Day, which is always on November 11. Veteran’s Day isn’t incorporated into a three-day weekend.

If you happen to catch a Memorial Day parade today, you might see people wearing little red paper poppies on their lapels. It’s connected to the poem In Flanders Field:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

The author of this poem, John McCrae, was a Lieutenant Colonel from Canada who fought in World War I. He served as a field surgeon and, when a friend of his was killed in battle, he wrote the memorial poem In Flanders Field. The poem was published anonymously at first, and it quickly became one of the most popular poems of the war. McCrae became a household name, both in Canada and the States, and the poem was used in a number of fundraisers for the war effort.

I’m sure you’re wondering now, “What’s the point, Meg? What does this have to do with costumes and geekery and all the nonsense you usually write about?” It’s simple, really. I’m able to sit here and type on my computer, and feel free to put whatever I want up in the vast world of the internet because of the people who came before me. I’m able to sit comfortably in my camp chair, eating a hamburger on this three-day weekend, because there are men and women who have dedicated their lives to protecting people they’ve never met – and will never meet.

I’m a student of history – quite literally. I have the degree to prove it. A number of my major papers for that degree dealt with the armed forces. As a result, I’ve spent a good deal of time flipping through the words and thoughts of soldiers who have come before. Regardless of your thoughts about war and everything that accompanies it, it’s important that you remember that the men and women who give of their time and, in some cases, their lives, are just like the rest of us. They have the same hopes and loves. Their fears are, perhaps, a bit more immediate and likely to become reality than yours and mine. After all, we’re sitting comfortably in our homes and they are in a war zone.

Take a moment today and think about the people who have fought for this country, in more than just an abstract way. Consider what it takes for them to leave their own families and friends and travel to a part of the world that might be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and hostile. And, when you see a soldier or a veteran, do what we do at the Veteran’s Powwow at the university…

say “Thank you, and Welcome Home.”

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