PITTSFIELD >> I find it sad how little most people know, or even care, about the origins of our national holidays.
To many people, a holiday like Memorial Day means nothing more than an extra day off. You don't have to go to work or school. It's an extra day to hang out with friends.
There's also the business side of Memorial Day. Since most people view Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer, businesses have cashed in by holding all manner of sales on the last Monday in May.
Cars, beds, clothing, you name it. There's a deal out there for someone somewhere.
I hate to sound old school here, but when I was growing up Memorial Day. and many of our other national holidays, meant something more than just another day off.
Shopping on a holiday was unheard of then because all the stores were closed. Restaurants and gas stations — except on the interstates — generally weren't open. The concept of the 24-hour convenience store and the ATM hadn't been developed yet, which cut down on road and foot traffic because nobody could go out to get cigarettes or cash whenever they felt like it. In those days, if you didn't stock up before the weekend, you were out of luck. Given our present tendency for instant gratification, I can't even imagine how something like that would go over today.
All of the technology that we currently take for granted — personal computers, laptops, cellphones — was still many years away. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, video games, live streaming, texting, etc., they weren't a growth industry then. Those were the types of things that you read about in comic books or were featured in corny science fiction movies.
The point I'm trying to make here is that without so many of these modern day items that we now take for granted to distract us, we had more respect and reverence for the process. At least we understood what having a national holiday meant, even if we didn't totally understand the exact meaning behind it.
Growing up, I knew Memorial Day had something to do with veterans. I didn't know, for example, that its origins date back to 1868 when an organization of Union Army veterans established what was then known as Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Major General John Logan was the one who declared that Decoration Day should be held on May 30. Why? It was believed that by that date flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The observance became so popular that Memorial Day ceremonies were being held throughout the country by the end of the 19th century. But the day was held only to honor Civil War veterans. It wasn't until after World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to include veterans who had died in all American wars. And, it wasn't until 1971 that Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress. That was also the year Memorial Day was placed on the last Monday of May, to create a three-day weekend for federal employees, which meant the date would fluctuate with the calendar. The practice now includes almost all of our federal holidays.
It isn't a bad idea, and it's certainly more efficient. But in my opinion, the scheduling of permanent three-day weekends was the beginning of the end for people actually knowing what a national holiday stood for. Three-day weekends all seem the same when they're scheduled like that. The holiday itself isn't special anymore. Personally, the practice drives me nuts. It just doesn't feel like Independence Day to me when the Fourth of July takes place on say, July 3 or July 5, or when Memorial Day is on May 27.
In December 2000 Congress passed and the president signed into law, "The National Moment of Remembrance Act," which created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance, which is charged with encouraging commemorations on Memorial Day.
As part of that effort, Americans are encouraged to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.
"It's a way that we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day, said Moment of Remembrance founded Carmella LaSpada.
Here's my suggestion: Where ever you are at 3 p.m. on Monday, put down the computer, delay the run to the ATM, even stop in the store you're shopping in, and take a moment of silence to remember what Memorial Day actually stands for.
We can't bring back the past. But in the present we can ensure that the reasons for holding a holiday like Memorial Day should never be forgotten.