By Shereen Siewert

Memorial Day is a time of mixed emotions, and perhaps that’s even more true this year.

In central Wisconsin, the holiday marks the informal beginning of summer. It’s the weekend to break out the grill, head up north, cheer at a parade or throw a family barbecue. This year, of course, it will look a lot different. Many bars and restaurants remain closed, parades have been closed, and travel is expected to be markedly lower.

But of course, Memorial Day means so much more than that, anyway.

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, which 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 ultimately became a symbol, a memory of the extreme sacrifices of war.

Another tradition is to fly American flags at half-staff in memory, then have the living raise them at noon. Raising the flag at noon is a symbol of carrying on, moving forward while still remembering and honoring the dead.

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, speeches at memorials and the laying of wreaths. We may see fewer of these 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 and enjoy ourselves during such a somber weekend. I can’t help but sometimes feel the celebration feels disrespectful of those heroes who fought and died in our wars, securing our freedom. Yet, I think we all understand that is enormously important to remember that those fallen soldiers, sailors and aviators we honor this weekend died while defending our very way of life, that very thing we are doing as we celebrate.

With that in mind, we should do two things this weekend. First, and most importantly, remember and honor our fallen heroes by participating in the respectful and solumn ceremonies taking place in our central Wisconsin communities. If public events aren’t being held, I encourage each and every one of you to hold your own, with your family.

We should absolutely raise our flags, lay wreaths at the graves of those we wish to remember, and say a prayer of thanks. We should never forget, and we should never cease to honor those who gave their lives, and the loved ones they left behind. Even more importantly, we should take pains to explain what the day means to the youngest among us so that these traditions continue for years to come.

Our children must know that freedom is not free, after all.

And then we should get out and appreciate our great nation, which despite all its difficulties and – yes – its shortcomings is still the incredible place that our fallen heroes defended for us.

Have a safe and meaningful Memorial Day.