Hard to believe but true — the Memorial Day weekend is just a week away. Although most schools are still in session and it’s still officially spring, for many Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer.
Rest and recreation are an integral part of the Memorial Day weekend, and this year we in the Press-Banner ’hood have lots of options. So many, in fact, that those planning to get out might get trapped by traffic — if your strategy isn’t finalized, you’d better get on it.
But let’s be clear and unequivocal on this: Memorial Day has a far deeper meaning than three days off and lots of things to do. At some point during our activities this weekend, we must pay heed to the spirit of the holiday and honor the men and women who have died in service to the nation.
Memorial roots
In 1866, with the fighting ended just a year earlier, the scars of the Civil War were fresh in the country’s psyche. Cemeteries everywhere were filled with hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers.
Henry Welles, a druggist in tiny Waterloo, N.Y., had lost two sons in the war and wanted his community to honor the memory of all those who died in the national fratricide. He found an ally in friend and customer Union Army Gen. John Murray. In May of the following year, the two led Waterloo in the first of what would become an annual observance: Flags were lowered to half-mast and locals joined in a parade to place flags or flowers on the gravestones at three local cemeteries.
Murray spoke of the event to his friend Gen. John Logan, founder and commander in chief of a nationwide organization of Union veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic. In 1868, Logan issued an order designating May 30 as a day to honor the war dead, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
The first national celebration of the holiday took place that year at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried. Initially called Decoration Day, the formal day of honor caught hold and was soon observed by entire communities. Within 20 years, Congress made it official, designating May 30 for the observation of the new National holiday in 1888.
Federal law cannot compel state, municipal or other local governments to observe or recognize federal holidays in any way however, as the Constitution effectively reserves holiday creation to state governments. But the “memorial” aspects of the tradition had been widely embraced, and when New York made it a state holiday in 1890, other states followed. By the turn of the century, it was nationwide in effect as well as in name.
After World War I, Decoration Day came to include all American soldiers killed in action. And in 1954, Congress renamed the holiday Memorial Day.
Through the decades, May 30 remained fixed as the day of observance, but by 1971, business interests had convinced Congress to change that too. That year, the observance was moved to “the last Monday in May” instead of being attached to a specific date.
A day off to remember
It was that action which opened the door to the three-day weekend we now enjoy, but it was the unions that made it a reality.
There is no requirement for private employers to observe federal or state holidays — historically businesses have resisted any recognition of holidays and violently resisted paid time off. Hard-fought, one at a time, the paid off-hours for holidays have been wrested from employers through union bargaining.
These days, we tend to take paid holidays for granted. But it was the unions, by getting those provisions accepted by big employers, that put the pressure on smaller, nonunion employers to do the same.
From the outset, Memorial Day was intended for somber remembrance, a day for Americans to visit cemeteries and place flags or flowers on the graves of the nation’s war dead. The duty to honor lost GIs does not fall only on those with ancestors, family members, or loved ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice — it is on all of us.
How, though, do we honor the 1.8 million who have died for their country since 1775? How do we thank them for their sacrifice?
The answer to those questions will be different for each of us. Visit a cemetery and contemplate the sacrifices of those who may lie there, volunteer to assist the local VFW in placing flags on headstones, call a veteran who did not die and acknowledge his or her sacrifice. By all means, fly the flag at home — protocol for flying the American flag on Memorial Day calls for it to be raised quickly to the top of the pole in the morning and immediately lowered to half-staff until noon. Then it should be displayed at full staff until sunset. (Unless illuminated, the US flag should never be flown at night).
While honoring America’s war dead is something we all must see to in a direct and specific manner next weekend, it need not intrude into other plans. Many will spend virtually the entire three days ensuring that the military dead are honored, and others will merely pause at some point and reflect.
Many communities have parades and other formal Memorial Day activities, a great way for the whole family to acknowledge the holiday’s intent. Check out the Felton Remembers parade on Saturday, May 23; Roaring Camp will host a Civil War encampment and re-enactment all weekend Saturday, May 23 through Monday, May 25; the Watsonville Memorial Day Parade is also that Saturday; and the Salute To The Heroes antique fly-in at the Watsonville airport goes from Friday, May 22, to Sunday, May 24.
It’s only by consciously acknowledging and contemplating their sacrifice that we pay homage to the men and women who answered their nation’s call and that we honor the members of the United States armed forces who were killed in war for this country.
Steve Bailey of Boulder Creek has spent plenty of time in recreational activities. Contact him at [email protected].

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