Memorial Day wasn’t always about long weekend road trips, backyard barbecues, or sales. The real meaning of this national holiday is more somber.
In this episode, Dylan talks about the origins of Memorial Day and what this holiday means — and should really mean — for Americans.
- [02:58] Why Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day
- [04:07] The origins of Memorial Day
- [08:52] The first large observance of Decoration Day
- [10:27] When and how Memorial Day became a federal holiday
- [13:14] The financial impact of Memorial Day across the country
- [16:14] How we should actually commemorate Memorial Day
[00:00:00] Intro: Forget the civilized path. It’s time to break the chains of debt and dependency, take control of our financial lives, and live free. This is the Fiscally Savage Podcast.
[00:00:16] Dylan Bain: Hello and welcome to Fiscally Savage. I’m your host, Dylan Bain. Happy Friday, everybody. And on this Friday, as normal, I would like to take one thing in the news and go a little bit deeper. But this Friday is the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, so I’m going to put a pause on all the talk about finance and personal budgets and economic systems. And I’m going to talk instead about Memorial Day because I think it’s important for us as any citizens of any nation to understand what our holidays are, where they come from, what they’re supposed to mean, and what they’ve become. And I say this because it literally doesn’t matter what the holiday is. I think in our modern society it’s been so commercialized, specifically here in the States, that it’s robbed the meaning out of the holiday. And I don’t want to bah humbug my way through all the holidays. I mean, after all, a big part of my focus with Fiscally Savage is that I’m very intensely interested in what it takes for humans to flourish. And my way into this is talking about finance. That’s the thing that I do best. I’m very good with numbers, I’m very good at talking about numbers, and I’m very good at helping people understand their stories around money. That’s the way I come in to the space. But at the core of any type of help or advice or learning is this idea of human flourishing — what helps us be more of what we are. And holidays and celebrations have been part of the human experience for as long as we can remember, and that includes both recorded and unrecorded history in the same statement. It’s really important to understand that like celebration is something that we need. Like, this is not optional. Just like rest is not optional to a fully functioning human. One of the things that a modern industrialized society does is that it wrings every last bit of value out of you and it commercializes every celebration. Nothing is hallow anymore. Nothing is sacred. Everything can be commercialized. They want to sell you a T-shirt and everything else like that. And Memorial Day has become that. But then again, so has Easter. So has Christmas. So has the 4th of July. We don’t take the time to really understand what we’re doing. It’s almost like an obligation that we sleepwalk through and we never stop to ask how we got here or why. So today on the show, I’m going to take a pause with for my normal activities and take my time to celebrate Memorial Day in a way that I feel is completely unique to Dylan, which is to do a really in-depth explanation of what the hell this thing is and what it means for all of us. So here we go.
[00:02:58] Memorial Day wasn’t always called Memorial Day and it wasn’t always, you know, the last Monday of May. It was originally called Decoration Day. And the idea was that we were going to be able to decorate the graves of soldiers. This is not unlike other traditions in other countries. Like, when I lived in Taiwan, they have a holiday called Tomb-Sweeping Day. And the idea behind that is that you go to where your family’s tombs are and you clean up around them and kind of tidy up the place, sweep them down, wash them off, and then, you know, leave flowers and decorate things. Decorating grave sites or memorials is something humans do. Like, when archaeologists and anthropologists uncover other cultures that maybe have died off, they frequently find shrines where there’s offerings or signs of sacrifices. This is another way of remembering things that have passed. So it’s appropriate on so many different levels that we started off calling it Decoration Day and with the idea that we’re going to go to these graves and we’re going to leave flowers and flags and other tributes.
[00:04:07] This got started in 1865, which, if you’re a fan of history, which God, I hope you are, that’s right after the end of the American Civil War. And the American Civil War was an absolutely bloody affair and one in which every soldier that died on the battlefield, regardless of which side of the battle lines they were on, was an American falling to another American’s bullet. It’s basically four years of nothing but friendly fire, and it devastated communities. One of the things that’s very interesting when you start actually thinking about armies and soldiers and memorials — like, if you go to civil war memorials, you always see, like, there’s the 14th Wisconsin, the 26th Tennessee. What those were, ladies and gentlemen, is that those were the regiment numbers of the state in which they were raised. And the regiment numbers, the way that they would do that is they’d send the recruiter in and say, “Hey, we need people to go fight.” And the young men would be like, hot dog, I guess I’m going to go to the war, and they’d sign up. So when you have, like, the 13th Wisconsin, they were boys or young men from the same town. And if you haven’t put the pieces together, if that entire regiment was wiped out in a battle, the entire male youth of that town was wiped out with it. And so some towns didn’t make it after the American Civil War. What they watched march away was their future. And so this day was a day to remember what they’ve lost, which was far more than just the young men who marched off to war.
[00:05:50] Now, it’s important to understand — the specific origin of this day is disputed, and various towns and cities across the United States have claimed it as the birthplace of the holiday. And these, of course, include, let me say Columbus, Mississippi, which held their first ceremony in 1866; Waterloo, New York, who was officially recognized by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, also known as LBJ, as the birthplace in 1966. And, you know, there are many, many others, but the idea was there was — the column was kind of like a zeitgeist collective consciousness of like, oh, we should commemorate this thing, and this is how we started to do this. In fact, depending on how you do your counting and what you, you know, determined to be the birthplace of this, you can point to May 5th, 1868, where one of the former Union generals, who was a leader of an organization for the Northern Civil War veterans, he called for a national day of remembrance later that month. And he said, quote, the 30th of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet courtyard across this land, end quote. Again, with this idea that there’s this turning point and we’ve had this great loss and we need to commemorate it and keep these people in our memories.
[00:07:14] Interesting side note: one of the things that happened after the Civil War, and this is — this has happened throughout American history,was this idea of, like, the Veterans Fund. What do we do with the soldiers who survived? And medical technology had continued to get better. And so during the Civil War, they had much better technology than, you know, to keep soldiers alive than they had previously. So not only did you lose a lot of people, but a lot of men came back crippled, and so the idea of a veterans organization really took root in the national imagination around this exact same time.
[00:07:48] So as with so many other things in United States history, there are multiple currents of history all flowing in similar directions at similar times. And I always kind of find that interesting because when people will say, like, what is the driver of history? Some people say it’s great people or for, you know, trends and forces or racism. I don’t know where you stand on these types of things. But to me, it’s always interesting to think of, like, when we see interesting events, I always think it’s kind of a combination of all of them, including some of the racist stuff, considering how we ended up in the Civil War in the first place. But understand that, like, this then had a profound impact on how we started thinking about the next wars we got into because, you know, for example, we got the Civil War coming, we got World War I, we’ve got World War II, we got Korea, we got Vietnam, you know, you get the idea. And so every single one of these conflicts are going to have their own unique society that kind of tends to the memories of these veterans, and they’re all kind of taking their lineage from these original people after the American Civil War.
[00:08:52] The first large observance of Decoration Day took place at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. on May 30th, 1868, mostly because of the general that I had mentioned earlier. Now, if you remember your history, you know that Arlington National Cemetery was actually confiscated from the relatives of Robert E. Lee. It was actually owned by George Washington Parke Custis, who was the step-grandson of George Washington and the father-in-law of Robert E. Lee. The property was confiscated by the United States government during the civil war due to Lee’s family association with the Confederacy because remember Robert E. Lee was, like, the general of the Confederacy and the one that all the Union generals, until you had Ulysses S. Grant, didn’t want to go up against. His legacy was what they were so unbelievably scared of. Now, for my money, General Longstreet would have been a more formidable opponent, but I digress. We can talk about tactics later. So the United States government literally confiscated the land because they considered it the property of somebody who was in rebellion at the time and then established it as a cemetery originally designated for military personnel only. And as the Civil War casualties increased and the need for burial grounds increased, Arlington became that place where they were burying them. Now, if you remember the battle lines, Washington, D.C. is actually fairly close to where the borders of the South would have started. And so, you know, it kind of makes sense that that was where we set up a lot of field hospitals and we’re bringing people across.
[00:10:27] But Memorial Day, as we know it, didn’t actually become a holiday on a federal level until 1971, when it was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress. And then, it was placed on the last Monday in May. Before then, it was always on May 30th. Now, they were saying, nope, it’s always going to be on the last Monday and where everyone’s going to get the day off more or less. And the idea was we’re going to have these national celebrations and we’re going to have these national remembrance. We’ll go put, you know, flags by all the grave sites and everything else like that. One of the kind of fun facts to understand about this is that, like, there’s actually like national protocols around Memorial Day. So for example, in the year 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which we’re all supposed to pause in America for exactly one minute at 3 PM local time on Memorial Day to remember those who have died in service of the nation. This was news to me when I was researching for this episode. I’ve never heard of this, and yet we have this pomp and circumstance that goes around this holiday.
[00:11:30] The other thing — and I’ve never seen this, but I’ll be looking for it on Monday — is the flag protocol. Now, if you’re not familiar with the United States, we love our flags. It’s just a fact of life. And one of the things to understand is that we’ve actually created massive levels of rules around the United States flag and how it’s supposed to be treated and what proper protocol is and blah, blah, blah, blah. One of the interesting things of the flag protocol is that you’re not supposed to put it on shirts. So if you’ve ever seen Americans in their star-spangled undie pants, that’s against the flag protocol. But the flag protocol also says that on Memorial Day, it’s customary to fly it at half staff until noon, and then raise it to full staff until sunset. This is a custom meant to honor the war dead in the morning and the living veterans for the rest of the day.
[00:12:16] So obviously, there’s a lot that goes along with this from a national identity standpoint. There’s so much social commentary that can go into this, and I’m not going to go to a whole lot of those. I’d rather kind of shift and talk about where did we end up in terms of how do we celebrate it now. So like everything in the United States, Memorial Day is a day off. And so Americans now suddenly have a three-day weekend, and everybody wants to capitalize it. Memorial Day is considered the first real travel day in the American calendar, because it’s also considered by many to be the start of summer. So for example, my girls’ last day of school is today when this podcast’s released. So on Memorial Day, on Tuesday, they don’t have school because school is out for the summer. So it very much is the actual denotation of them going into summer and the changing of the years. And now, we have all the summer events.
[00:13:14] But on this one day, if you were to look at, like, what is the financial impact across the entire United States, it comes out — between domestic and international travelers just in these three days — to be about 660 bucks per person as of 2019. So that’s a pre-COVID number. That’s the best I could get. And this is suggesting that there’s billions of dollars that are spent just on traveling around, both going to barbecues or going on vacation or going camping and international travels come in. Tons of pomp and circumstance in Washington, which is a huge tourist attraction and it’s just massive. Another thing that is kind of interesting is that in the 1970s, we started having Memorial Day sales. This is the idea that like oh, well, this is a day off. People have an opportunity to actually go out and spend some time browsing because they can spend their Saturday and Sunday doing normal weekend activities. But now, Monday is kind of a free day where they could come in and browse some goods. So according to the National Retail Federation, Americans typically spend almost $7 billion on food items during this particular time, and that’s including all the rest of the different retail sales that we see. So that’s $7 billion above and beyond what we would normally be spending. So it’s a hard number to actually calculate, but the retail sales are kind of impressive.
[00:14:37] This is another interesting thing about Memorial Day is that, you know, kind of going on the sales. One of the interesting things — we’re all familiar with Black Friday. It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving, in which everybody and their brother says now it’s time to get your Christmas shopping done. And there are some debates as to why we call it Black Friday. Some people say it’s because the sales are so large that that’s when most retailers find themselves into the black in terms of their revenue and profits for the year. I don’t actually know. But according to the Automotive News organization, as of 2019, Memorial Day weekend accounted for 2.5% of total annual new vehicle sales. So in three days, we almost accounted for 3% of all the new car purchases in the entire year. And then, of course, not to be outdone, there are plenty of people who wring their hands all about how much we lose in worker productivity because we gave them an extra day off. And so I’m going to throw that estimate in here, too; that if you assume that everybody works 250 days a year, giving them one day off amounts to about $84 billion in opportunity costs or lost productivity. I mean, when you kind of add it all up, did we really lose, or did we just spend more money? I don’t actually know which side of the balance sheet this ends up on. But the reality here is is that on so many different levels, we’re celebrating Memorial Day in the most American way possible. We make an homage to our military, and then we barbecue and we go shopping. That’s what this has become.
[00:16:14] And so my invitation to every single one of you is that on this day, take a second to just stop and ask yourself what are you doing, and is the thing you’re doing a good way to remember the legacy of all the men and women who have given their lives in combat for our country. And I would argue that flag-waving is great and going to a parade is nice and maybe picking up a new car is even cooler. But I would argue that the American barbecue is probably one of the best ways that we can really honor the sacrifice of all those who have fallen in battle because it’s uniquely American to grill out and put steaks in the grill and chicken breasts and potato salad. But it’s also an opportunity for us to be truly human; to break bread and gather together; to be together; to be unified, complete.
[00:17:16] I’d like to take an opportunity to really celebrate what America is: a land of opportunity, a patchwork of different cultures and ideas. And I think we’ve forgotten that between debt ceiling debates and culture wars and economic headwinds and COVIDs and conspiracy theories and news organizations and overheated politics and gerrymandering. At the end of the day, we have far more in common than we’ll ever have in differences. That we are, for better or for worse, one people now bound together by an American tradition. And I think that’s worth remembering today, too, because after all, when the recruiters for the civil war showed up and said, “Hey, we need to raise a regiment,” those young men stood up and said, “Yes, I will march off to war” because they believed in something. And I think at this particular point in time, it would be worth it for us to take time to believe again. Remind ourselves what we love about our country, what we love about our fellow countrymen, even the ones, maybe even particularly the ones we may disagree with. Have a lovely three day weekend, everybody. To all the men and women who have served this great nation, I thank you for your service. I just like to remind you that I love each and every single one of you and have a good weekend. Be safe.
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