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Celebrating the Giants – A Memorial Day Perspective

As a former radio announcer, Memorial Day used to mean one thing to me:  programming nightmare.  Memorial Day has, for decades, been commercialized as the start of summer, and at the radio stations that I worked at, that meant programming a playlist of upbeat summer songs to go with some incredibly ridiculous ratings campaign slogan like “It’s the 97 days of summer on 97.7 FM.”  Not only would I have to find 72 hours of happy summer music, with as little repetition as possible in song choice, I would also work six or more hours each day all weekend long playing that music and saying “It’s the 97 days of summer on 97.7 FM” over and over every hour.  While I miss working in radio, I certainly do not miss sounders, jingles, slogans and weather drops.  And I don’t miss the commercialization of holidays that should, instead, command respect.  Like Memorial Day weekend.

This year marks the 150th year of Memorial Day celebrations.  The origins of modern Memorial Day celebrations date back to 1866.  With over 620,000 men and women killed during the civil war, the United States established national cemeteries to bury the fallen soldiers.  The first celebrations of fallen soldiers took place in the national cemeteries with family members placing flowers on the graves of their loved ones.  Soon, random remembrance events started in individual towns and communities.  Known as Decoration Day, every spring families would decorate the graves of fallen relatives and friends with flowers and flags and say prayers in remembrance of their sacrifice.

Like many traditions, Decoration Day would slowly grow and spread over time.  The city of Waterloo, New York is officially recognized as the first community to organize a Memorial Day celebration.  Decoration Day was held there on May 5, 1866, with all local businesses closed for the day and organized graveside memorial services held to honor fallen soldiers.  Two years later, in 1868, General John A. Logan, who led a Civil War veterans group, declared May 30, 1868 as Decoration Day.  He chose May 30 because “it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.”  By 1890, Decoration Day became an official holiday in all 44 states.

Decoration Day initially honored soldiers fallen in the Civil War, but it would soon become known as Memorial Day and after World War I, in which nearly 117,000 Americans were killed, it became a day to honor fallen soldiers from any conflict, not just the Civil War.  With the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, Memorial Day became a federal holiday, celebrated on the last Monday of May every year.

Flash forward to the 21st century and what is Memorial Day?  For many, it’s just a three day weekend filled with burgers and beer, camping, golfing, home repair and remodeling projects and generally just getting a paid holiday from work.  For retailers, it’s a reason to bombard us with sales on things that we don’t need, but feel we must have because they are on sale.  My favorite (said with dripping sarcasm) is the annual Memorial Day mattress sales that spring up everywhere.  But Memorial Day is more than that. It is a day to remember giants.

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” in a letter to his academic rival, Robert Hooke.  But Newton did not coin that phrase.  The origin is attributed to John of Salisbury, in 1159.  The full, and original statement, has great applicability to Memorial Day.  John said “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

This statement, written 857 years ago in 1159, is the embodiment of what Memorial Day should be about.  We are all standing on the shoulders of giants – those that served in the military and sacrificed their lives to preserve freedom and promote equality for all.  They are giants and their deaths have paved the way for all of us to live like we do, enjoying the freedoms we have.

As you enjoy the Memorial Day weekend, grilling burgers, listening to upbeat summer music while a DJ says something silly about the 97 days of summer, attending graduation parties or even buying a mattress on sale, take time to remember that all these things are possible because of the 1.3 million Americans who have died in combat since the Civil War. And if you attend a parade or visit a grave this weekend, tread lightly, because you are truly standing on the shoulders of giants.

.Memorial Day Cemetary

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