So, here comes another Memorial Day weekend. A three-day extravaganza of family, fun and sunshine, the unofficial beginning of summer!
The beaches will be packed with people getting their first sunburn of the season. Families will fill parks across the country, from the national reservations to the small neighborhood pocket parks.
The AAA Mid-Atlantic estimated that more than one million people from the Washington metro region will be traveling over the weekend, most by car.
The weather forecast is for summer-like temperatures as well — hot, humid and as hazy as a mid-July day.
We celebrate the holiday in so many ways, from parades to picnics, from swimming in the ocean to climbing the mountains. After a long winter and a fairly wet spring, people here are ready for some summer fun.
But before you head out to your favorite playground, we would ask you to take a moment to remember the original meaning of Memorial Day.
For Memorial Day was a holiday born from a vast national sadness.
It started out in the bloody aftermath of the Civil War as Decoration Day, a day set aside each spring to decorate the graves of the men and women killed in the way.
And there were so many dead. The American Battlefield Trust estimates 620,000 dead, but other estimates are even higher. It was not until the Vietnam War that the number of soldiers killed in every other war America has fought equaled the death toll of the Civil War.
Whatever the number, the impact was immense. For some perspective, the trust reports this shocking number: “Approximately one in four soldiers that went to war never returned home.”
After four years of this horrendous slaughter, the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865. Soon, in towns all across the country, people began to decorate graves of the fallen, in small churchyards and in the first national cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery. Within three years, it became a national event.
As History.com, the website of the History channel, records:
“On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. ‘The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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,’ he proclaimed.
“The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.”
For 100 years, Americans marked May 30 as the day to remember the dead and decorate their graves. But by the 1960s, Decoration Day had become Memorial Day, more a family holiday than a day to touch the scars of war for most people. In 1968, Congress moved the holiday to the last Monday in May, starting in 1971, to create a three-day weekend and give people a mini-vacation.
While the holiday first was only to memorialize the Civil War dead, war, like time, marches on. Next, in the Spanish-American War, 2,446 Americans died, and then in World War I, 116,516 were lost. And Decoration Day ceremonies grew to encompass the memories of those dead veterans as well.
World War II counted 405,399 dead, the Korean War 36,516, and Vietnam 58,209, and the graveyards continued to grow.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the toll by 6,626, and the fighting in Afghanistan still goes on, America’s longest war by far.
So, before your picnic or parade or day at the beach or the mountains, you would do well to take a few minutes to think about the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have given their lives to protect and defend our country.
And to remember that the dying goes on.