Monday, May 29, 2006

Day of the Dead

Have you noticed how wonky our holidays are? They seem to have evolved from their original notions into things very different from what was originally intended. The obvious ones are Christmas (Celebrating the birth of the Savior with the arrival of Santa Claus) and Easter (Celebrating the death of the Savior with Bunnies and Chicks), but I'm starting to think that all holidays have their own secret history. Heck, even Mother's Day originally had an anti-war component to it, before Hallmark got ahold of it.

And then we have Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is an interesting challenge because we can't say for sure WHERE it came from. A quick run through the web turned up that it was first celebrated by a) Liberated slaves in 1865 at a Charleston SC racetrack that had been a prison camp and mass Union grave during the war, b) Natives of Boalburg, PA who were decorating the graves of the recent war dead in 1864, c) Women of Columbus MS who were tending to the graves of the Confederate dead and chose to extend the same courtesy to the dead of the Union army, or d) War hero John "Black Jack" Logan of Waterloo, New York in 1868. The last one is the official one, but it in turn is admitted to be based on earlier Confederate Memorial Days for their war dead.

And it wasn't even called Memorial Day, but rather Decoration Day, and it was intended to clean up and leave flowers at the graves of Union soldiers. The general time for a seasonal cleaning for the honored dead makes sense (fresh flowers are available, and the long grass needs mowed about that time), but I have yet to find a reference as to why it had to be May 30th, though it was the conclusion of the Siege of Corinth, where Logan led a brigade.

Initially, Decoration Day (Memorial Day started popping up in the 1880s, but didn't get the national nod under 1967) was solely for the Union dead, and the Confederate dead had their own memorial days, varying according to state. After WWI, the doors were thrown open for all the American war dead, and the US South began to commemorate the day as well after WWII. In 1968, it was moved from May 30 to the fourth Monday of May, which provided the handy three-day weekend that most people connect with the holiday. As of 2000, the government asks for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 PM.

Memorial Day, more than a commemoration of those who have sacrificed in battle, has evolved into the official, governmentally-sanctioned start of summer (Labor Day is the other bookend of the season). The Indy 500 belongs to it, and every major city seems to have its Folk Festival this weekend (no lie - I was on the phone with my mom in Pittsburgh yesterday - she mention the Pittsburgh Folk Festival is downtown, and I responded that Folklife is out at the Seattle Center as well).

This does not sit well with some Vets, who feel the commercialization hides the true meaning of the day. And, indeed, where are the Fox blowhards thundering about the "War against Memorial Day"? (Answer: They're out on their boats). The vets would like to move the day back to the 30th, so the sheer inconvenience can remind people that there WAS some sacrifice here, and not just so you can haul out the grill for the first time this year. And I agree with the sentiment, but I just get frustrated trying to figure out why the 30th was chosen in the first place, and where the holiday really came from.

More later,