May 9
by Ken Reynolds

This post is a part of a a special on-line edition of Smoke Signals Memorial Day Tribute to the men and women who have fallen in service to America. To read the special edition click here.

On May 31 some Americans will observe Memorial Day and consider the real sacrifices the day is designated to honor. Others will enjoy it without thinking about its meaning; to them it is just another holiday. Many others do not know that Memorial Day means more than just time away from their jobs. Even as the list containing the names of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan expands, our understanding of what that list means to our nation shrinks.
The purpose of Memorial Day is to remember and honor those who have paid with their lives for our freedoms — among them, the freedom to choose how we spend the day. This special day is not about car races, or sales on patio furniture. It is not just another day off from work, and neither is it the beginning of summer. Merchants are free to have sales any time they choose, and to tie those sales to any theme. Individuals are free to attend sporting events, take advantage of the sales or to make use of the long weekend in anyway they want. Those choices are ordinary and ingrained parts of life in America. We take them for granted and tend to forget those who paid for our privilege to choose.
No one knows how long people have been decorating the graves of loved ones, but it is a matter of record that in the 1860’s decorating the graves of those killed in the ongoing conflict was widespread on both sides. That tribute, widely known as Decoration Day, did not occur on the same day in every community, but it was something communities had in common — remembering and honoring those who had fallen in war.
The United States does not have national holidays. The federal government designates holidays for federal employees and the District of Columbia. Each state, through its own process, can choose whether to observe the federal holidays, alter the date of observance or specify other holidays. The designation of May 30 as a day to strew flowers or otherwise decorate the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country was made by a Union general in 1868. The purpose was to preserve and strengthen the bonds of those who fought and “to honor the memory of departed comrades.”
In 1968 Congress enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The purposes of the change included: opportunities for families separated by long distances to be together; more time to travel and enjoy a wider range of recreational activities; more time to make pilgrimages to historical sites, thus increasing participation celebratory events; more leisure to participate in hobbies, and cultural events; increase productivity by reducing absenteeism and reducing the number of workweeks interrupted by mid-week holidays. The Act is an excellent example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Only two of the five reasons have a reasonable connection to the purpose of Memorial Day. A national day of observance, a public holiday, is not the same thing as a vacation day. Vacations are private or family affairs originated as respites from work. Public holidays, like religious holy days, are set aside to remember, honor or celebrate something of importance to the community. Since the law took effect in 1971 we have been blending the holidays into vacations and loosing the distinction between the two. That loss is another incremental step in a continuing diminishment of America’s sense of community.
Thirty years ago more three-day weekends seemed like a good idea, especially for merchants, the tourism industry and government labor unions. More than a generation later, when death in armed conflict involves a relatively small percentage of our population and we have converted Memorial Day into an extension of private vacation time, it is no longer a good idea.
If we return to the traditional day of celebration it would be a small but important step toward restoring our sense of belonging to a community called America. Memorial Day should be a common day of remembrance, not a private day of vacation.

Read about Ken Reynolds on the Writer’s Bio page