On May 9 of each year, the Russians put on a massive military parade in Red Square. It is a commemoration of the victory over the Nazis in World War II. On July 14 of every year, the French put on a huge military parade down the Champs-Élysées in Paris to celebrate Bastille Day. There are military parades in many countries on special days of national importance. The last military parade I can remember in Washington D.C. was after the Gulf War in 1991. Other than that, massive military parades are not typical elements of American holidays. On Independence Day, the thing most of our elected officials do in Washington D. C. is leave town.
With possibly the exception of Pearl Harbor, and what was then known as Armistice Day (now Veterans Day), most Americans would probably be stumped trying to identify the dates when most of our wars began and when they ended. Can anyone really say off the top of your head, the date when Congress declared war in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War or World War I? When did the rebels fire on Fort Sumter? What about Korea and Vietnam? On what date did these conflicts end?
You may now be quietly asking, what about Memorial Day? … which is just a few days off. I can’t recall any great declaration of war, or establishment of peace, on May 30. In fact, the holiday’s original name was Decoration Day; it was when townspeople across America would process out to their cemeteries and decorate with flowers, the graves of Civil War veterans. The date was not chosen because some special national event happened on May 30. It was chosen because flowers are expected to be in full bloom around the end of May. The choice of the date was entirely practical. How American! In 1971, Congress standardized Memorial Day to be on the last Monday of May.
How do we celebrate Memorial Day? If there is a parade, it may have a small military component, often comprising members of local veteran’s organizations, but nothing on a scale of the Russians on May 9 or the French of July 14. Participants in Jacksonville parades toss candy to the spectators. It’s hard to imagine the French or the Russians doing that. What many, if not most, Americans do on the Memorial Day holiday weekend is possibly watch a car race from Indianapolis and maybe have a picnic. How American!
Some of us follow the old custom of visiting the graves of veterans in our cemeteries. No endless ranks of goose-stepping soldiers, no tanks and massive missile launchers grinding the pavement. Just small groups quietly walking through cemeteries, stopping at graves, in quiet remembrance. This part of America’s Memorial Day is more personal than national. When I visit veterans’ graves on Memorial Day, I stop at some markers because they mark a significant conflict, which helped keep America free. There are three Revolutionary War veterans buried in Jacksonville East Cemetery, along with many Civil War veterans. I visit them every Memorial Day. I also visit the graves of veterans I knew. Like I said, it’s personal. This may be a side of Americans little known to foreigners. The cartoonish stereotypical American, the loud rah, rah, flag waver, is not in evidence in the cemeteries I visit on Memorial Day. The date of this holiday is not connected to some military historical event placing it on the calendar. It’s spring and the flowers are in bloom, and there are fallen veterans at rest, whom many of us haven’t visited for a year.