Despite the “sales events” and “blow outs”, Memorial Day still holds a special place as an American holiday. My sense is that it remains a day when many people take time to remember and reflect on the sacrifices of the more than one million soldiers who have died in wars for the United States. For those who have lost loved ones recently, it is especially strong and emotional. But for everyone it is a day of collective memory, and its solemn nature facilitates reflection in a way that is harder on other holidays like the Fourth of July.
The juxtaposition of grief and celebration, of graves and picnics, may seem hard to comprehend. I find it helps balance these to think about what the historian David Blight has identified as the first Memorial Day. On May 1, 1865, amid the ruins of Charleston, South Carolina, several thousand blacks–most formerly enslaved—held a memorial for the Union dead. Here is Blight’s description from his New York Times op-ed published a few years ago: