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Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day?

May 30, 2011

The other day my three-year-old daughter asked me what Memorial Day is. I started to tell her, “It’s a day when we remember and honor the people who have died in war for our country.  No, wait – everyone who has served in a war.  Wait…um…” 

I was embarrassed that, although I had a general idea of what it was, I wasn’t quite sure what Memorial Day was for.  So, if you too aren’t sure what Memorial Day means, here is a quick history lesson, thanks to Wikipedia:

Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. Service Members who died while in the military service. First enacted by an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War. It was extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars.

As our children get a little older and can begin to understand these things better, we plan on finding ways that we can teach them about holidays.  What they mean, why they started, and what it was like to be around at the time of the thing they are commemorating.  They’re still a little young to fully grasp some of these things like death and war and love, but at some time I will read them this letter from Civil War Major Sullivan Ballou:

[A week before the battle of Bull Run Sullivan Ballou, a Major in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote home to his wife in Smithfield.]

 July 14,1861  Camp Clark, Washington DC

 Dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. And lest I should not be able to write you again I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes and future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.

If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name…

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have sometimes been!…

But, 0 Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in the darkest night… always, always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again…

(This is only an excerpt from the letter.  You can find the full text of it here.  I recommend you read the whole thing, it’s a beautiful letter!)

I think it’s important to understand history through the eyes of those who lived it.  So, although this year our Memorial Day celebration will consist only of a little flag ceremony on our front porch and a quick discussion about war, I know that someday I will read this letter to my children.  One day we will read stories like Gone With the Wind and visit historic sights like Williamsburg and Washington D.C., and do our best to understand what it was really like to be in that place and time.

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