Ask a hundred people walking down the street which holiday we are celebrating this weekend, and the vast number will get it right: Memorial Day.
Ask them what it is for, and I suspect you’ll get a lot of “it’s the start of summer” answers. Then ask for the traditional date of the holiday, and unless you are talking to an old-timer, my guess is few will know. Which is strange, because the holiday falls on that date this year.
Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War, and was celebrated for the first time in 1868, by people placing flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. The designated date was May 30. The celebration stayed on that date for a long time. Of course, I should not call it a celebration. The whole purpose is to mourn those who have fallen in the service of our nation. And yes, there was some discussion over precisely what that phrase meant between northern and southern folks.
Still, May 30 was the date until the early 1970s, when in the anti-war climate after Vietnam, Congress moved it to the last Monday in May. Several other holidays were moved to Mondays by the same legislation which was designed to give federal workers more three-day weekends.
Pretty much ever since then, some people have tried to move Memorial Day back to the 30th. Mostly these campaigns have been lead by veterans who feel as if the loss of American lives among our troops should be marked by solemn remembrance — not so much by trips to the beach, softball games and pirate movies.
I suspect the holiday could not be moved with tongs and dynamite at this point, but I must admit I tend to favor the view of those old troops. Maybe it’s because I came from a military family, but I think when someone agrees to get shot at for you, the quid pro quo ought to be a lifetime of gratitude. And when one of those folks gets killed, it is not too much to ask a nation to stop for a few hours each year to remember them.
In all fairness, as more than one writer has observed, their sacrifice is the only reason we are free to have a day off anyway.
–CNN’s Tom Foreman is a regular on “AC360°”/www.ac360.com and “The Situation Room.”
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