For many, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. Folks may see the three-day weekend as the opportunity to bring out the barbecue, begin to wear white, head to the beach with family and maybe, just maybe, break out Old Glory for a spin in the blustery winds of May. For some, Memorial Day is something to “celebrate” as it means a day off from work and sales at local auto dealers or retailers. This year, the ability to even go shopping in a department store means much more than ever before. Over the years, Memorial Day has shifted in its meaning. Some believe it is a day to remember all those who have served in the military. That sentiment may be nice, but it is not the true meaning of the day.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for members of the U.S. Armed Forces who died in military service. It was first observed nationally in 1868, when flowers were placed on graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It later changed from honoring the dead from just the Civil War to honoring the dead from all American wars. Once known as Decoration Day, it was traditionally observed on May 30. Now, it is on the last Monday in May to create the three-day weekend.
Around Memorial Day, Veterans of Foreign Wars members and American Legion Auxiliary volunteers distribute red poppies in exchange for donations to programs that aid disabled veterans. The tradition began after World War I and was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian physician who served in the war. In the poem, he described the wild red poppies growing on a Belgian battlefield. Wearing a red poppy soon became tradition in memory of the sacrifices of war. Another tradition is to fly American flags at half-staff in memory, then have the living raise them at noon as a symbol of carrying on. In recent years, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and JROTC Cadets have begun the tradition of placing American flags at soldiers’ grave sites.
A new tradition in downtown Aiken and North Aiken involves the display of banners of veterans from these cities. These “Hometown Heroes” banners have a photo of a different person in uniform on each side along with their branch of service and the war or conflict they were involved in, allowing our citizens to see who among their neighbors served in the military.
In a “normal year” we would enjoy our annual Memorial Day Parade here in Aiken. This year, there will be no Memorial Day Parade due to COVID-19 concerns. But the sacrifice of those who died in service for our country should still be remembered, and that remembrance should be more than just a family get-together or a day in the park. At the very least, we should all take a moment to reflect upon those who died in service and explain what the day means to our children. It is a tradition worth carrying on.
This year, instead of a parade, those involved in the planning are asking citizens to observe a moment of silence on Saturday at 11 a.m., wherever they may be at that time. That is the date and time originally scheduled for the parade. One longtime parade participant felt it fitting to continue Aiken’s tradition of remembrance. On that date, at that time, in a small, dignified and very fitting tribute, Mr. Robbie Shellhouse of Shellhouse Funeral Home will guide his 1800s era, horse-drawn caisson and a riderless horse through downtown Aiken.
I can still vividly remember one of my early first Memorial Days after beginning active duty. I was a young Marine lieutenant serving on my first deployment to Beirut Lebanon. I was eager to see action, and in a few short months I saw enough to last a lifetime. Memorial Day is a time for us to honor the memory of those Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen and their families who made the ultimate sacrifice so that you and I can enjoy all of the rights guaranteed by our great nation. So, as you enjoy the weather and the opportunity to enjoy your family and friends, take a few minutes to remember the contributions and sacrifices of those who gave all for this great nation.