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Memorial Day meaning lost

May 31, 2004|By WANDA T. WILLIAMS

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Retail sales, three-day vacation weekends and family get-togethers are popular Memorial Day events that sometimes overshadow the holiday's true meaning, area veterans say.

World War II veteran and retired Mack Trucks executive Jack Costa, 82, said in addition to the holiday's commercialization, the changing political climate might also be responsible for a public that's less interested in observing or attending patriotic celebrations.

"There's less reverence today. People have become very cynical about the political system," Costa said during lunch at Morris Frock American Legion Post 42 in Hagerstown.

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Costa said he hopes the war in Iraq inspires more people to observe Memorial Day than in past years.

"Everyone has mixed emotions about the war, but I think everyone respects the people that are serving," he said.

Hood College American history professor Rusty Monhollon said respect is shown in a variety of ways. Monhollon said several American holidays are used as opportunities to indulge in personal pleasures often attached to making money and selling products.

"The Fourth of July has become about shooting off fireworks or going swimming. Even St. Patrick's Day is less about being Irish and more about an excuse to drink," he said.

Dating to 1868, Memorial Day was formerly known as Decoration Day. The holiday grew out of the custom of placing flowers on the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. Historical accounts differ on the holiday's place of origin. Some accounts say the custom originated with women in the South, and others link the tradition to communities in the North, according to historical Web sites.

For many families, Memorial Day still is a day to honor fallen soldiers and family members who have died, said Bonnie Martin of Williamsport. She and her husband, Charles, said Memorial Day holiday retail sales won't lure them to stores.

The couple looks forward to celebrating with their son, a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps.

"People just don't have family picnics anymore. It's just hurry to the mall," Martin said.

In the Jonathan Street community, Korean War veteran Ernest Burnett, 73, and Vietnam veteran Gerald Barnett, 56, said they believe the decline in public participation in Memorial Day observances reflects a growing generation gap.

"A lot of people don't know as much because there aren't as many older veterans around here anymore,'' said Barnett. He said Memorial Day traditions often are often passed on by older family members.

Memorial Day observances can vary depending on the area of the country, said Antietam National Battlefield Superintendent John Howard, who manages the cemetery and the battlefield.

He said family gatherings have changed over the years.

"It was about the idea of bringing families together to remember whatever loved one was buried," Howard said. "It was a tradition that meant picnics on the cemetery grounds."

Howard said that no matter how it's observed, he wants the public to remember one thing: "It's a day of remembrance and a day to say 'thank you' to soldiers who died for our country."

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