Returning soldiers often say the thing they missed the most when serving abroad was their moms’ cooking — warm bread, stone-fruit pie, a hearty breakfast, a thick burger, or a juicy pork chop. Perhaps that’s why today Americans so often celebrate Memorial Day with food.
Memorial Day has come to mean many things: the unofficial beginning of summer, a family day, a day off. It means time for some shopping, a long walk, or a cocktail served a little earlier in the afternoon. It’s a day to get out those white linen pants and sandals, a day to go sleeveless. For many, it’s a day to invite friends over, plan a menu, and host a cookout.
I’m a fan of all these things. In fact, I am a big believer in food traditions and have hosted my fair share of backyard barbecues, but as we head into the long weekend, it’s also important not to forget the real reason for this day of remembrance: to honor our military personnel, the people who make all of this possible.
It’s easy for that message to get lost in the general celebration of summer. Certainly most of the media are more interested in giving traffic predictions, airline information, and weather forecasts than in acknowledging the sacrifices of service members. The morning programs line up those ubiquitous celebrity chefs to give tips on another round of cookout menus (do we really need another recipe for coleslaw?), properly mixed drinks, and table decorations. Food Network offers endless burger and barbecue recipes, websites offer whole sections dedicated to Memorial Day–themed food, and grocery stores line the checkout aisles with glossy food magazines featuring cover shots of juicy, grill-marked steaks.
Travel editors wax poetic about weekend travel destinations, cheap flights, resort packages, and deals and steals. The newspapers are filled with colorful ads for Memorial Day blowout sales on everything from fish tanks to patio furniture.
It wasn’t always like this. Ask a WWII veteran, many of whom don’t even refer to the holiday as Memorial Day but rather as Decoration Day because it was a day reserved to decorate fallen soldiers’ graves. It was not viewed as a grim or solemn day but as a day of great and meaningful appreciation — one spent with families, no doubt with some merriment, but also with a deep understanding of what the day commemorated.
At the very first official Memorial Day, held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, Union general John A. Logan said the day was “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” With those words, the thousands of spectators who had gathered that day spread out across the then-much-smaller cemetery to do just that.
Today, the duty of providing flags on the graves of soldiers is the responsibility of the Veterans Administration, the individual branches of the military, and the wonderfully active veterans’ and civic groups that remain dedicated to this important tradition. Thanks to them, each grave will get its due adornment. But it seems fewer families and individuals participate in the more ceremonial aspects of the holiday; these aspects are much in need of revival.
Visiting national cemeteries is an emotional experience. There is perhaps nothing quite like visiting Arlington National Cemetery. Its white-stone grave markers stretching for miles over soft green grass make immediately clear how many young men have died in service to their country.
Some of the traditional Memorial Day activities have endured. Parades are still around — soldiers from as far back as WWII still march alongside beauty queens, high-school bands, and community clubs. The president will still make his annual trip to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And thankfully, there are still activities held at the nation’s national cemeteries, including speakers, bands, color guards, and choirs.
Memorial Day does not need to be a dreary occasion. Indeed, a backyard barbecue or a get-together with family and friends can be the best way to honor our soldiers: to carry on that great American tradition of cold beer and grilled meat.
But perhaps, on May 25, we should take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices that members of our military make every day. The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains 128 national cemeteries in 39 states. Visit this link to find a cemetery in your state. Leave a flower on the grave of a soldier known or unknown to you. Take your children and explain the meaning behind this important national holiday. And then go home and fire up that grill.
– Julie Gunlock, a former congressional staffer, is now a stay-at-home mom.