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An anatomy of our most confused holiday

It's a solemn observance with a side of potato salad.

A flag flies at the San Francisco National Cemetery on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
A flag flies at the San Francisco National Cemetery on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)Read more

By Daniel Deagler

We tend to treat Veterans Day like Memorial Day, and Memorial Day like the Fourth of July Jr. Yes, there are plenty of solemn Memorial Day observances, but the participants then head off to the barbecues and pool openings that are characteristic of Memorial Day's other identity as the first day of the American summer.

Memorial Day was a response to the Civil War, and it sits where it does on the calendar for a perfectly good reason. It was originally called Decoration Day - a day to honor the (Union) war dead by decorating their graves with flowers, which are most abundant in late May. While we now have annuals that bloom into autumn, they have been introduced into American gardens primarily over the last century; the native perennials bloom mostly in the spring.

One of the first Decoration Day observances took place in Waterloo, N.Y., on May 5, 1866, one year after the war ended. A prominent citizen of Waterloo, Gen. John Murray, took the idea of an annual national memorial day to his friend Gen. John Logan, who, in his capacity as commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the nation's largest Union veterans' group, issued a proclamation calling for a national Decoration Day in 1868. It was observed that year on May 30, which was chosen because no Civil War battle had taken place on that date. Memorial Day would be observed on May 30 for the next 100 years.

Veterans Day, on the other hand, came after World War I, and its date, Nov. 11, is the date of the armistice that ended that bloody conflict. Armistice Day, also called Remembrance Day, is observed around the world as a kind of international memorial day. It was first observed in the United States specifically to honor the dead of the Great War, but it was ultimately expanded to include all veterans, both living and dead. But its position on the calendar, at a time when the trees are shorn of leaves and the sun casts long shadows, invites somber reflection in ways that lush late May does not.

Although Memorial Day has marked the unofficial start of summer for about as long as it has existed, Congress cemented that status with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968. It moved four holidays - Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day - from fixed dates to designated Mondays that would fall close to those dates in most years. (Veterans Day has since been restored to Nov. 11, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated for a Monday from its inception.)

Although opening and closing the American summer with three-day weekends (with Memorial Day and Labor Day) was largely an accident, it has proven to be an extremely popular one. However, it can't help but diminish the missions of the two bookends, especially Memorial Day's. Why should a day that ought to be our most serious remembrance of those who died for our freedom have to share its identity with potato salad, pool parties, and the Indianapolis 500?

Holidays evolve organically. We're mostly just along for the ride. What is true of Easter, Yom Kippur, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and others is also true of Memorial Day: It is but a date on the calendar to remind us. The size and shape of our observance is, in the end, irrelevant. Our obligation is to remember our debt to those who gave the last full measure of devotion, and to do so not only on the last Monday in May, but every day.