I’m going to rest up like my friend here. I’m going to eat well and play some music. And I’m going to remember our military dead—which is what the holiday used to be about. For many it’s become just another day off from work, an excuse to shop the many sales, a big weekend for travel, as a record 2.7 million will do by air this year.
Memorial Day shouldn’t be just about barbecues and beaches. It used to be called Decoration Day (which is what my mother called it), a day to adorn the graves of the now millions who served the USA and died for it. As the country has secularized, so have its holidays, Christmas being the notable example. Patriotism, for many, is long out of fashion.
People don’t much care now about the meaning of holidays—or even those current events which can dramatically affect their lives. How many have been truly involved in the outcome of the debt ceiling deal, for instance? Or understanding climate change, the world’s biggest challenge? I grew up in a different time and surely a different cultural milieu.
When I was 21, I was planning my first trip to Europe. This was 10 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany. My aunt Edna had lost her son Bobby in the war. He had flown bombers for the Air Force and was downed over Germany, the land of his forebears. Edna asked me to visit his grave in Cambridge, England, which I did and which I can’t forget.
Why is it only those with personal ties who feel the impact of such a mountain of death? What does it mean to die for your country?
Part of my respect for commemorating the dead came from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy who taught for many years at Dartmouth College. I took several courses from this extraordinary man who spoke about religion, theology, language and philosophy in an inimitable way. He had fought in World War I as a German soldier.
He also had much to say about the importance of holidays, their celebration and meaning. One example: “To reconquer his holidays, to establish a new and better time schedule for life, has been the great endeavor of man ever since the days of Noah.” Some of us would occasionally meet at his house in Norwich, VT, for evening talk.
The celebration of holidays was one subject that brought together the disparate elements of Rosenstock’s thinking. With all the things now clamoring for our serious attention, maybe we can’t revise the meaning of a holiday like Memorial Day. Maybe we can’t recapture the past, but we can remember what it was about.