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Guest Contributor Bryan O’Nolan
Human civilization has done pretty well arranging the holidays and civic observances in its various calendars. In America, we get it right, for the most part. We have, however, a glaring error that ought to be fixed. Now, I’m no Euro-fetishist — “Fahrenheit, Feet and Ounces” is my “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight” — but in remembering the war dead Europe gets it right. The United States needs to reform her calendar so that Veterans Day — celebrating the living — is the last Monday in May, and Memorial Day — honoring the dead — is observed on the 11th of November.
We have an incredible opportunity before us, an opportunity to right this calendrical error. November 11th, 2018 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which ended World War I, the day which gave birth to our Veterans Day. What better time than this to realign our public calendar to the reality and mood of the seasons?
For thousands of years, man has plotted his seasons and days by stars and floods and has attached special, reverential meaning to the variations he has observed. Nearly five thousand years ago, the Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland was digged and carved by earnest hands so that the rise of the Winter Solstice, when the day begins to grow long, would shine through a carefully aligned and hewn roof box and then down the stone and earthen passage to fall, bright and distinct, upon the tomb or altar carved, shaped and reverenced by its makers. Man has made, at great cost, calendars of stone and wood the world round in order to know and tell the movement of the seasons. The ancient Egyptians designed their lives, calendar and holy festivals around the seasons of Inundation, Growth and Harvest.
Christmas is similarly well timed, the Light returning to a world in darkness. I consider it no coincidence that Hanukkah falls similarly in the year.
Easter, the season of rebirth, is in the spring, as is the Jewish Passover. Spring is the season of emergence, the deliverance from winter into the promise of summer and harvest.
Eight of the ten federal holidays are similarly well-arranged. They are of two types, though there are certainly more of the latter: Seasonally Appropriate holidays, and holidays of Specific Remembrance. Thanksgiving, at harvest time, is of both types. Columbus day is timed with the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to the New World on October 12th. Presidents’ Day — when we honor the profane god-kings whom we suffer to monarchize, traveling with their small, empowered personal paramilitary force from the White House to Camp David, to the Southern Palace at Mar-a-Lago, to the Island Palace at Martha’s Vineyard, etc. — is of the latter kind, nestled between the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington, technically celebrating the latter. Independence Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, are similarly date-dependent. The last of the eight is an outlier; Labor Day is placed, seemingly, where a decent end-of-summer three day weekend ought to settle and laudably celebrates organized labor on a day other than May Day, when communists and other labor-fetishists celebrate the working man.
The remaining two are complicated. What we call Veterans Day today was declared by President Wilson — or, perhaps, his wife, given his incapacity — in November of 1919 to be observed on the 11th of that month, being the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the first World War. It was then called Armistice Day, by which name it was still by habit yclept by my grandfather to his dying day. After the Second World War, the holiday was translated to Veterans Day: from a day celebrating the end of the Great War to a day celebrating those who fought in all wars. To this day it is thus.
The distinction, it should be said, is instructive. Armistice Day was an annual day of giving thanks to those who had died in a specific war. There are the so-called “thankful villages” in England, each notable for its rarity, who sent men to war in World War I and returned every one of them home safely. Our Memorial Day is, similarly, for those men who made it home.
It would be well to note, here, that in Europe the November holiday is analogous to ours of May. This is owing, in part, to the fact that European nations suffered exponentially more than we did from the First World War and bear the after-effects to this day. The Great War was a violent rift political, social, geographical and religious; an aching, festering wound not since closed.
Memorial Day has its origins in the Civil War years as Decoration Day, initially celebrated in the South to decorate the graves of the fallen. As the holiday was appropriated by the North during and after the war, the day came to be called Confederate Memorial Day in the South. In the North, a day in late May was chosen as in that season the flowers used for grave decoration were most likely to be in bloom. Practice tended towards calling the day Memorial Day through the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries until the day was formally nationally declared in the 60’s and anchored to its present date of observance in the 70’s. This, on its own, makes sense.
Where this all goes wonky is when one tries to square the timing of the holidays — one based on flower bloomage and another on a firm date — with the oft-confused modern understanding of the days themselves and the practice of observing them.
I love and will defend tradition as reflexively as anyone, but does it make any damn sense to be having a cookout, downing brewskies in the sun and setting off fireworks in recognition of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country? No; the bright promise of summer ought to be spent with those who were willing to make summer of winter’s violence and lived. Historically, winter was a time of scarcity, when survival was far from guaranteed. Spring, summer and plenty were the fulfillment of the cycle of death and rebirth. We should be celebrating survivors, then, in the sunlight and promise of summer, not in the gloom of autumn.
Does it make any sense to celebrate the living in the creeping chill, under ashen, laden November skies? Or ought we honor the fallen in the darkening gloom, honoring their sacrifice, when the season is low and congenial to sadness and loss? In autumn the year is growing cold, the leaves fall and the trees are barren and even a relatively nice day carries, at least here in the Northeast, the far-off nose of winter.
I will not ever say that reason should always reign supreme, however common good sense at the very least ought to obtain when it comes to celebrating and remembering those who fought and those who gave all for our country.
The living deserve high-fives, cold brewskies, grilled meats, newly-open swimming pools, sunshine and fireworks in the sun.
The honored dead should have our undying gratitude in the dying of the year.
Wouldn’t it be just and right and honorable for our country to recognize this in 2018, the hundredth anniversary of the end of a cataclysm which so scarred, so deeply wounded the Western world that it has scarcely recovered?
In Britain, poppies are worn in remembrance of that day. We should wear them as well in November, and in May celebrate the living.