Our national holidays in the United States have layers of meaning. At their most superficial, they are three-day weekends that lend themselves to cookouts, trips to the beach or visits with friends or relatives.
Where holidays fall in the year also mark important annual milestones. Memorial Day falls in late spring and is generally thought to usher in summer. Schools are either about to finish or have already let out for the summer. Labor Day marks the end of summer and, more or less, the beginning of another school year.
Holidays also mark seasonal fashion shifts. You can safely pull out those white shorts, slacks or skirts this weekend without fear of ridicule from fashionistas.
But beyond the superficiality, our most meaningful holidays are remembrances of sacrifices made by others for our benefit.
We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. near his birthday in January to recognize the contribution he made to civil rights in America, an endeavor that he paid for with his life. We celebrate Presidents’ Day near George Washington’s birthday in February, although most people recognize the holiday as honoring both Washington and Abraham Lincoln – arguably the two greatest men to serve in that office.
July 4, or Independence Day, is a celebration of our freedom and those who sacrificed to establish our democratic republic. Labor Day honors the work of those, both past and present, who have toiled to build our bridges, fly our airplanes, teach our children and provide any number of products and services to make our lives better.
And then there are religious holidays, including Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan, plus the two most widely celebrated in this country – Christmas and Easter – which are remembrances of a person who adherents believe made the ultimate sacrifice.
Which brings us to the holiday at hand, Memorial Day. If anyone has never visited Arlington National Cemetery, consider going now.
It makes the heart ache to look upon acres of white marble tombstones, in immaculate rows, next to tiny American flags and realize that there lay thousands of soldiers who died defending our safety and freedom. Try reading aloud, without crying, the many markers that commemorate soldiers who were killed in various battles during World Wars I and II.
Stop by the gravesites of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, both assassinated in the prime of their lives, and think the next time you are tempted to sling arrows at public servants – even if you disagree with their opinions or actions.
Finally, visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and marvel at the discipline and sacrifice required to guard that national shrine. And think about what that soldier represents and why Memorial Day remains so very important.