Memorial Day is one of America’s most confusing holidays. Depending on the celebrant, it can be a day of grief, glory—or backyard barbecues.
It’s not a bad thing to have such disparate takes on a day of remembrance. And don’t worry: You’re not a bad person if you choose to sit back and enjoy your day off. But sometimes it pays to think about why we get the day off in the first place and ponder the mysterious forces that bind hot dogs, tears, and flags all together.
Decoration Day, as the holiday was once known, arose in the years after the Civil War as a way to grieve for the 750,000 soldiers who had perished over four bloody years. Families who stifled their mourning during wartime sought public ways to pay tribute to the fallen in peacetime. Understandably, graves become a focus for the bereaved, and mourners took flowers to cemeteries to decorate them.
This practice first received semi-official sanction in 1868 when General John Alexander Logan, the head of a large fraternal organization of Union veterans, designated a day each year “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Southerners didn’t take too kindly to this initial effort, but by 1890 all the Northern states had recognized the holiday.
This emphasis on the Northern dead wasn’t just born of sectional spite. The ultimate sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of men to preserve the Union elevated the value of the nation to its citizens. Lacking the traditional building blocks of other nations (such as centuries of shared history on the land or ancient blood ties), the U.S. had long had a difficult time forging a unifying national culture. The idealistic nature of American nationhood left people hungry for a more flesh-and-blood connection to their country.
It was the Union dead who first seemed to prove that America was more than a mere idea. “Before the War our patriotism was a firework, a salute, a serenade for holidays and summer evenings,” wrote essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1864. “Now the deaths of thousands and the determination of millions of men and women show that it is real.”
James Russell Lowell, the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, thought that the enormity of the Union Army’s sacrifice also proved something to condescending Europeans. “Till after our Civil War,” he wrote in 1869, “it never seemed to enter the head of any foreigner, especially of any Englishman, that an American had what could be called a country, except as a place to eat, sleep, and trade in. Then it seemed to strike them suddenly. ‘By Jove, you know, fellahs don’t fight like that for a shop-till!’”
The holiday overcame sectional tensions around World War I, when Southerners—though many still revered the heroes of their Lost Cause—rejoined the fold, and the day’s scope was expanded to honor Americans who died fighting in any U.S war. Commemorating the fallen is one way that governments rebuild the morale of nations that have suffered great loss. Even in victory, losses are real to families, and depictions of a triumphant nation thankful for its heroes can be comforting to a populace trying to move forward. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial—which was unveiled in 1954 in Arlington, Virginia, and shows five Marines and a Navy corpsman hoisting the American flag during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II—is the quintessential depiction of perseverance and a classic commemoration of war.
But in the aftermath of no war do grief and glory intersect seamlessly. The needs of the state, bereaved families, and surviving veterans do not always coincide. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, Indiana University historian John Bodnar describes the main sides of the late 1970s and early 1980s controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On the one side, he writes, were national leaders, many patriotic veterans, and private citizens “who saw in the monument a device that would foster national unity and patriotism.” On the other were veterans who fought in Vietnam, people who cared about them, and bereaved families who were less interested in the memorial being a display of unity or patriotism than an expression of empathy for the soldiers who suffered and died. Empathy is paramount to the monument that was ultimately erected. The memorial—with the names of the fallen etched into black granite walls that sink into the National Mall—wound up symbolizing, in Bodnar’s words, “the human pain and sorrow of war rather than the valor and glory of warriors and nations.”
The annual Memorial Day holiday doesn’t elicit the same depth of emotional intensity as the planning of a permanent, national war memorial. But the interplay between grief and glory is ongoing. The politics and public reaction to war is ever-changing, and families who have lost soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan are likely to observe the day differently than somebody who has not had a relative in uniform since the Korean War.
Memorial Day also has divided the public in another way: between those who chose to observe the holiday and those who saw it as a chance for leisure time. While there’s no way to accurately estimate the size of each group, historians Richard P. Harmond and Thomas J. Curran suggest it’s likely that the latter always has been larger than the former. And that gap is probably growing wider.
Rather than harangue about some presumed decline of patriotism or gratitude in America, I’d suggest that backyard barbecues are also fundamental to Memorial Day’s building of national morale. Yes, it is absolutely critical to remember the fallen and the wars they died in. But, as the 19th-century French scholar Ernest Renan argued, forgetting is “an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” We also need to move beyond old divisions and the brutality of history. That, my fellow Americans, is where the hot dogs come in.