By Daniel Hubbard | June 5, 2010
Memorial Day has just come and gone. I took my kids for a bike ride to the nearby cemetery. There, four of their great-grandparents, one great-great-grandparent and several of their great aunts and uncles lie buried.
The main family plot is easy enough for me to find but one of my uncles is buried elsewhere and I was far from sure that I could find his plot. Around Memorial Day though, he was easy to find. He had been a volunteer fireman, a police officer and a corporal during World War II. During this time of year, his grave was very well marked.
Aside from the poignancy of that day making it so simple to find him, it got me thinking again about how events long ago have left footprints through our culture without our any longer being aware of the origins. Memorial Day is when it is because of something that happened and something else that did not. What happened was the American Civil War and the need to memorialize that followed it. What did not happen was a great battle on May 30, the former fixed date for Memorial Day. There was no one major event to commemorate on that day so it was possible for everything that had just come to pass to be commemorated. No great Union victory or Confederate triumph fell upon that day to stain it for those who had been on the other side.
I wonder if there isn’t a doctoral thesis hiding in such remains of great events that linger within a culture without people really being aware of why they are there. The holidays, the songs, even turns of phrase that became so deeply implanted when people knew exactly why, that now, when many do not know their origins, continue on their own for other reasons (or to use a phrase that is an artifact itself, they continue under their own head of steam). How large does an event need to be to leave such a trail through time? How much larger does an event need to be for each such remnant that it leaves? For how long is our mental trail of breadcrumbs able to lead us back from result to original event? When does the result become so important that it does not need to be sustained by memory of the event that created it?
The Civil War gave us Memorial Day. It gave us a Christmas Carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Today some of the words are usually omitted but the original speaks of thundering cannons in the South and the splitting of a continent. Even today’s abridged version is perhaps unusual for a Christmas Carol in that it mentions hate. It was written in 1863. The origins of the Pledge of Allegiance can also be found in the shadow of the Civil War. The emphasis that was placed on “one nation” and “indivisible” came at a time when few could have missed the historical rationale behind those words.
World War I gave us Veterans Day. World War II gave us I’ll Be Home for Christmas. We still sing it, but we don’t necessarily think of the perspective of the 1940’s G.I. when we do.
Clearly, I’ve just scratched the surface of these bits of culture with origins in the not so distant past. Results that live on without any real consciousness of from where they come. All I know is that one result, Memorial Day, of an event, a long ago war fought 60 years before his birth, has just helped me to find the grave of an uncle I never knew. That was good enough for me this Memorial Day.Twitter It!