How do you celebrate?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Batcho
  • 71st Medical Support Squadron commander
What does Memorial Day mean to you? I challenge you to think about that as we draw closer to May 26. It seems too many of our national holidays have become increasingly obscured in terms of their history, significance and how they're observed.

In particularly, the traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years. I think many Americans have forgotten the meaning and tradition of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored and neglected. Most people no longer remember or respect proper flag etiquette for displaying our nation's flag.

While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country. Oftentimes, when a national holiday falls on a Friday or Monday, many of us look forward only to what becomes just another three-day weekend to spend in any number of ways. We can remember with vivid detail what we did or where we shopped, but the importance and meaning of the holiday is not as clear.

Memorial Day was originally conceived as a day to memorialize the approximate 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War. By the end of the Civil War, Americans came to realize it as the most devastating event in the history of the United States. Nearly everyone in the country had known someone that was killed during this war.

Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day, in reference to the decorations that were laid on grave sites and hung from buildings. The first Decoration Day was officially recorded as May 30, 1868, memorializing our Civil War dead, but decorating their graves goes back even earlier.

The first observance of Decoration Day originated with various women's auxiliary groups in the North and South, when ladies organized grave decorations to honor their war dead. The earliest recorded event took place on April 25, 1866 in Columbus, Miss.

A women's group formed an association to decorate the graves of civil war soldiers, starting with those who died in the Battle of Shiloh. Following that recognition, the towns of Macon and Columbus, Ga., and Richmond, Va., all claimed to be the birthplace of Decoration Day because they first celebrated it in 1866.

Who and where this was first celebrated was still in dispute, with about 25 cities -- most of them in southern states -- claiming to be the birthplace of the original Decoration Day. The dispute was settled in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson when he issued a proclamation naming Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day.

In December 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The goal is to "promote the values of Memorial Day by acts of remembrance throughout the year and to encourage Americans to demonstrate their gratitude by giving back to our Nation."

So I ask, "How are your acts of remembrance on Memorial Day? If you have children, what are you teaching them about the history and importance of America's holidays?"

Now is a good time to plan a meaningful Memorial Day. It's a great opportunity to teach children about America's holidays and remind ourselves of their history and importance as well. You may already do these types of activities, but if not try one or more of the following and see if your holiday has added significance:

  • Read a book about the holiday and share it with your family. The library has a wealth of books, magazine articles and other media that can offer a great deal of education.
  • Visit a war veteran. Have your children visit a senior citizen's retirement home, and ask them about their service, what Memorial Day means to them and how they observe the holiday. You'll find patriots eager to reminisce and share their stories. Your new friends will benefit greatly from the chance to share their memories and experiences, and you will too.
  • Display a flag. Memorial Day is the perfect holiday to teach a young person about how to properly display and respect your nation's flag, and why flags are typically flown on national holidays and other special occasions.
  • Visit a cemetery. Read the inscriptions on grave markers and tombstones of war veterans. Discuss the possible scenarios surrounding a veteran's life and the time in our history in which they lived.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. It's not important what the holiday was originally called or who was the first to recognize the day. What is important is that Memorial Day was established to reconcile and come together as a nation to honor those who gave their all.

How do you celebrate?