Memorial Day weekend is technically the beginning of summer, and here in beautiful Coastal Georgia, with temperatures already creeping into the 90s, it certainly feels like it.
Until I moved here, I did not know some of the traditions surrounding Memorial Day weekend, other than it honors those men and women who died while serving in the military and is always observed on the last Monday of May. During the last six years, I also have learned:
• Memorial Day first was known as Decoration Day, originating in the years following the Civil War and becoming an official federal holiday in 1971.
• Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. My husband’s family always arranges for flowers on his parents’ graves, and he tries to be in Kentucky (where they were born and are buried) on Memorial Day if he can.
• White normally is not worn until Memorial Day and also not after Labor Day, which marks the unofficial end of summer. I had never heard of such a thing until my lovely daughter-in-law, who is a GRITS (“girl raised in the South”), clearly explained that wearing white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day is often seen as a sign of bad manners and inappropriate.
According to the Fashion Institute of Technology (www.fitnyc.edu), this tradition of when to wear white originates from the late 19th century, when more people were entering the middle classes. These nouveau-riche folks often were unaware of the standards of high society, so they were given specific codified rules to follow in order to fit in, such as when to wear white.
Most public holidays in the United Kingdom are different both in purpose and date to the ones I now celebrate in this wonderful country. Other than Christmas Day, America carefully avoids public holidays around religious occasions, whereas much of Europe still focuses on the Christian traditions of extended Christmas and Easter public holidays.
Just to confuse matters further, people in the U.K. just enjoyed their “Spring Bank Holiday,” also known as the late May Bank Holiday, which also falls on the last Monday of May. This public holiday has evolved from an old tradition of taking off the first Monday after Pentecost and still is often referred to as Whitsun or Whit Monday in the United Kingdom. There are some quirky traditions in parts of Britain surrounding this holiday, such as the blessing of boats, displays of Morris dancing (an odd, medieval affair involving jester outfits, hopping over sticks and beer), and a number of local festivals. And then, there are the really strange ones:
• In Brockworth, Gloucestershire, people race down a steep hill following a large, round cheese. The first person to cross the finish line wins a Double Gloucester cheese weighing about 8 pounds. The custom may have been started by the Romans or ancient Britons and might be an ancient fertility rite or a way of guaranteeing the rights of the villagers to graze their livestock on the surrounding land. Many people have been injured over the years.
• In Endon in Staffordshire, they hold a Well Dressing Festival in which they elaborately decorate all the wells in the town, crown a girl as the Well Dressing Queen, enjoy duck racing, maypoles and Morris dancing. Also, the men hold a competition called “Tossing the Sheaf,” in which they compete to see who can throw a bale of straw the highest.
All this just proves to me how every part of the world has its own special traditions and customs that you can understand only if you live in a community for long enough, as I have been fortunate enough to do both in the U.K. and the USA.
However, leaving aside all the quirkiness about this time of year, I would like to leave you with a great quote by North Carolina congressman Robin Hayes that I think encompasses what this great holiday is really about: “Memorial Day … is especially important as we are reminded and almost daily of the great sacrifices that the men and women of the armed services make to defend our way of life.”
Amen to that!
God bless America, and enjoy your summer!
Email Francis at firstname.lastname@example.org or by going to www.lesleyfrancispr.com.