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Did you know that Memorial Day is commemorated in different ways and on different dates throughout our nation? The observance had its beginnings during the Civil War, which is a good hint that there would not be uniformity.
More than two dozen cities and towns lay claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day, and each had its own customs. There is evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War.
Following the war, towns in the North decided it would be a good idea to honor their military dead also. In 1868, “Decoration Day” was officially proclaimed. It was so named because the emphasis was on decorating graves of fallen soldiers.
By 1890, it had been adopted by all northern states. Most southern states refused to observe the national day because of lingering hostilities. They continued with their own state observances, spread throughout the year.
It wasn’t until after World War I that the South began recognizing the federal Decoration Day. Many men from both North and South gave their lives in that war, making unification finally possible.
In 1967, approximately a century after the first Decoration Day, the name was changed to Memorial Day. A year later, Congress passed the Uniform Holiday’s Bill, which moved four holidays from their traditional dates to the closest Monday in order to create some three-day weekends.
All states have now adopted the holiday, although most southern states still observe a separate day to commemorate those who died fighting for the Confederacy.
Memorial Day customs in various areas of the country still differ. In most areas, the emphasis is on honoring the dead from all wars our nation has fought.
Some communities, however, want to pay their respects to all their dead by cleaning cemeteries and decorating all graves. The practice may help distinguish the observance from Veterans Day.
Recent Memorial days have meant more to Americans as our young people are dying again in the service of their country. The shift in the nature of warfare has meant that fewer lives are being lost than before.
Most of us do not have a close family member who has been killed in any war and the media is prohibited from showing the flag-draped boxes bringing young Americans home.
But the cost of our nation’s defense is still counted in lives and not in dollars. The real cost of liberty, the real price of the freedoms that too many take for granted, is measured in lives that won’t be fulfilled.
New Mexico has contributed its share and more to the defenders of freedom. Even before we became a state, our predecessors proudly joined the Rough Riders who charged San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt.
A half-century later, we were the fighting 200th Coast Artillery, that slowed the Japanese march down the Pacific until our nation could recover from the devastating losses at Pearl Harbor.
Few of our World War II veterans are still with us to remind us of their sacrifices. But we must remember because it is those memories that put into perspective the consequences of future actions.
Mothers remember. It has been said that if mothers were in charge, nations would get along better. The same can be said of generals, who understand the horrors of war. Our problem is the swaggering politicians, most of whom avoided military service and haven’t had to suffer the loss of sons or daughters.
So this Memorial Day, before we launch into a celebration of the summer’s first long weekend, let us remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to protect the constitutional guarantees we take for granted.
And let us also remain ever watchful that no government ever uses a national crisis to justify taking away any of those rights and freedoms.