Some Say Americans Jazz Up Solemn Holidays

Shane Nylin of Chino Hills, Calif., is likely visiting Washington, D.C.'s war monuments and military cemeteries this Memorial Day weekend to remember the Marines and sailors from his unit who died fighting in Iraq.

The 26-year-old, discharged in December, said he'd be sure to recall his friend, Marine Sgt. Kenneth Conde Jr. of Florida, 23, who refused to stop fighting insurgents in Ramadi in April 2004 even after he was shot through the left shoulder and his arm gradually went numb. After Conde's death from a roadside bomb in July, his father told The Associated Press he kept fighting at Ramadi because he heard the insurgents cheer when he fell, and that made him too mad to stay down.

"The best parts of a superhero and the best parts of a mortal hero -- that would be Kenneth Conde," said Nylin, who outlined his holiday plans in advance this past week. "He always led from the front, and every Marine that ever worked for him had nothing but respect for him."

On the other hand, another reader had quite different holiday weekend plans -- to kick back at the latest "Star Wars" movie, and maybe work in the yard if the weather was nice.

America's biggest holidays often come with solemn official meanings -- to honor fallen soldiers, veterans, great leaders, the founding of the country.

But Americans -- who get less time off than workers in many other countries -- also love to enjoy their free time. So, in addition to the commercial elements of store sales and greeting cards, the big holidays have developed alternate traditions that might have little to do with the official reason for the season.

For example, Christmas, a religious celebration of the birth of Christ, also features gift giving, house decorating and winter imagery. Thanksgiving and New Year's have football.

Memorials and Beaches

Likewise, Memorial Day officially is a federal holiday set aside for remembering America's war dead. But as with late-spring holidays in other countries, the calendar has given Memorial Day another meaning.

"Given the fact that Memorial Day is celebrated at the end of May and given the fact that Labor Day is celebrated at the beginning of September … both of them, simply because of where they fall on the calendar, have taken on these other meanings as the openings and closing weekends of summer," said Jack Santino, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green University in Ohio and author of "All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life."

Readers who responded to an query about their Memorial Day weekend plans offered a broad range of itineraries -- from attending a town memorial parade or a ceremony at a local cemetery, to kicking off the summer season by heading to the beach or on a family camping trip.

"There are at least two levels of holiday activity going on," said Sheri Parks, who teaches a course on pop culture and the family as an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. "There is a core group for whom it is deeply meaningful in a very specific way, and a second group of holiday dilettantes."

Many readers said they'd specifically reflect on America's military losses and conflicts this Memorial Day weekend, while one said he might protest "the unjust war this insidious adminstration has thrust upon us." Some said they'd expand the memorial idea beyond the military to include visits to gravesites of deceased family members or crime victims.

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