Memorial Day is a time of mixed emotions.
In central Wisconsin, the holiday marks the informal beginning of summer. It’s the weekend to break out the grill, head to the cabin, collect candy at a parade or throw a family party. After all, in Wisconsin, summer is fleeting, and we want to take full advantage.
But of course, Memorial Day means so much more than that.
This holiday, more than any other American holiday, is a time for somber reflection. It is a time to remember the tens of thousands of people who have served our country over the centuries and have given their lives in the process.
The holiday has its roots in the days following the Civil War, our nation’s most deadly conflict. In May 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers, according to the Veterans Administration.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. After World War I, the observance was expanded to honor those who have died in all American Wars. And in 1971, Memorial Day was declared, through an act of Congress, a national holiday to be held on the last Monday in May each year.
Around Memorial Day, Veterans of Foreign Wars members and American Legion Auxiliary volunteers distribute red poppies in exchange for donations to programs that aid disabled veterans. The tradition began after World War I was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Field” which described the wild red poppies growing on a Belgian battlefield. Wearing a red poppy soon became tradition in memory of the sacrifices of war.
Another tradition is to fly American flags at half-staff in memory, then have the living raise them at noon as a symbol of carrying on.
In recent years, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have begun the tradition of placing American flags at soldiers’ grave sites.
Central Wisconsin communities, like others nationwide, have for many years marked the holiday with parades, rifle salutes at cemeteries, speeches at memorials and the laying of wreaths. We will see many of those this weekend. But while most of us grasp the meaning of the holiday, the veterans and relatives of the fallen appreciate the day in ways the rest of us will never truly understand.
In some ways, it feels wrong to celebrate during such a somber weekend, disrespectful of those who fought and died in our wars. Yet, it is important to remember that those fallen soldiers, sailors and aviators we honor this weekend died while defending our nation’s way of life.
With that in mind, we should do two things this weekend. First, and most importantly, remember and honor our war dead by participating in the solemn ceremonies taking place in our central Wisconsin communities. We should lay wreaths, hoist our flags, and say a prayer of thanks. Do not forget to honor those who gave their lives to keep us free and the families they left behind. Explain what the day means to our children, so the tradition carries on.
And then we should get out and appreciate our America, which despite all its problems and shortcomings is still the wonderful place that our fallen defended for us.