Being a nerd, what I like most about holidays are the stories that go with them, (except for Columbus Day.) Every holiday is an excuse to summon the storytellers and resurrect the stories. It is no surprise, therefore, that I get a little frustrated when the stories and the history get crowded out by the other enterprises our holidays feature.
Of course, I am prejudiced. After all, I am a story-teller rather than someone trying to sell patio furniture and mattresses for a living. As each holiday approaches, I am that six-year old boy again, living in a parsonage out in the open country, next to the Pierce Church and its cemetery. On slow summer days I might meander around the cemetery reading the tombstones. I would stare at where each body had been laid and wonder, my curiosity racing. What did the body look like now? What did it look like alive? Whose grandpa or grandma was this? For the younger ones, why did they die? I wanted someone to tell me more than just the sparse information on the tombstone: tell me a story; tell me all the stories... about each and every person in this silent village below me.
So, of course I grew up desiring to hear stories with my holidays. And of course, I am dismayed when I reckon more mattresses will be sold than stories told this three-day weekend.
Americans have been observing Memorial Day since the end of the Civil War. It was first called "Decoration Day." In the first three springtimes after the Civil War, , when flowers started appearing in abundance, communities across the country set aside special days to decorate the graves of those soldiers who had died in the war. It was a spontaneous trend at first, local and growing in popularity across the country.
In 1868, the national leader of Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan (who would later become a United States Senator from Illinois) called for a nationwide day (May 30) dedicated to decorating the graves of veterans. It took hold.
During the 20th century, cemeteries in towns and counties all over the country added graves for those killed in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Decoration Day" became known as "Memorial Day." And in 1968, congress passed the "Uniform Monday Holiday Act" (the start of the three-day weekend in our country) moving Memorial Day from May 30 to the fourth Monday of May.
From a sociological sense, in every culture, holidays that begin with a need to memorialize some story are quickly usurped by people's need for physical and emotional release. We need a break from our work, our daily grind, our boredom. These needs for relief, rest, and venting are all real and legitimate, germane to our personal and corporate health. And so when holidays roll around, for a brief spell we are free, cut loose. We hold parades, embark on buying binges, go off our diets, hold motor races, watch professional sports, descend upon parks and beaches, hold family reunions, get liquored up. And this year, we feel the rebellious spirits all the more: even the most timid among us are tempted to toss off our masks and hug someone...despite the cautions of our public health advisors.
In every culture, holidays and festivals are essentially a pressure release: sanctioning an unnerving amount of foolishness, rebelliousness, and misbehavior. We NEED our times of craziness, or we'll go even more crazy than we already are.
I understand all that. But still I grieve that the powerful stories that gave rise to our festivals get so smothered.
In these days of pandemic and political fever, we need the balm of our historical stories as much as ever. And if we'll give them some attention, the stories behind Memorial Day and the Fourth of July will enlighten us and guide us well.
The stories about these two summer-time national holidays are about freedom and justice...and what they really cost.
Any national festival that amputates its stories from its celebrations is a lie. Freedom and justice are never free. A walk through nearly any cemetery in America this weekend will remind us that some people paid the price of life itself for freedom and justice...or what they were told would be freedom and justice. Most of the rest of us pay a lesser cost. But there is a cost, nevertheless, for everyone.
For example, the cost of freedom to worship consists these days of the sacrifices we are willing to make for those (mostly elderly in our churches) who have an immune system unable to handle a virus that has already killed 100,000 Americans.
Every freedom guaranteed us in our national and state constitutions, every economic privilege enjoyed in our country, and every liberty to move about freely...all come with a cost.
Of course, I never want to pay any more than I have to for something. But the stories of those who gave their lives for what they hoped would be freedom for you and me is making me think that it is actually a privilege to pay some price for getting back to being the land where liberty and justice are for all.