Today Memorial Day is all about a long weekend , retail sales, and barbecues. Some towns still have a small parade, but the true significance of the day is lost to most people. It was quite different in the late 40’s when I was growing up in Medford, Massachusetts.
This holiday, which began with honoring the Civil War dead, had real meaning to folks.War was a much more immediate and horrific memory. WWII was still fresh in memory, and even my own parents and many neighbors had lived through WWI. To love one’s country and be proud of those who defended it was an honorable thing.
My father , who each day raised the flag in our yard, was a stickler for flag etiquette. Memorial Day was a special day . He would demonstrate to an audience of neighborhood children that to display a flag at half mast, you would first raise the flag to the top of the pole and then slowly lower it half way and fasten it there. Then at noon you would raise the flag full staff.
Memorial Day Assembly was the high point of the school year in the small neighborhood elementary school. Most girls dressed in white, and the boys wore white shirts and ties. It was lilac season, and the stage was banked with huge, fragrant bouquets from family gardens. The sixth graders were responsible for the bulk of the program and could be identified by red, white, and blue sashes. The program began with the flag salute (only 48 stars in those days) and the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Two girls with clear magnificent voices sang songs you never hear today. One sang “Just Before the Battle Mother” and the other “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.” The whole school sang “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” One or two students read original essays. One recited “In Flanders Fields” – though each of us had memorized it in our classrooms.
The principal and a student had the honor of helping an ancient Civil War veteran to the podium, and in a shaky voice he addressed a rapt audience. (BTW: In recent years I’ve thought there could not possibly have been a Civil War vet there, but I’ve since discovered the last one died in 1956, so my memory was not playing tricks on me.) The program closed with the whole school singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Our family has a friend, born on May 30, 1961, whose mother promised he’d never have to go to school on his birthday because it was a holiday. All that changed in 1971 when Congress passed the National Holiday Act, making Memorial Day the last Monday in May in order to insure a three-day weekend. Beginning with that change, it seems the unique purpose of Memorial Day was slowly lost until now, for many, it is just a three-day-weekend that unofficially marks the beginning of summer.
© Dorothy C. Judd
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