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.

Reflecting and Relaxing

A large percentage, including Trent Wakenight of East Lansing, Mich., said they'd be reflecting and relaxing.

Wakenight, his wife and two kids planned to attend their local Memorial Day parade "to remember the purpose of the holiday."

"We are engaged in a war right now, and we can't forget those people who are serving there and bringing us the freedom we celebrate on weekends like this," he said.

But his family also planned a trip to a Lake Michigan beach.

"There's no better place for Memorial Day than the beaches of Lake Michigan -- sunshine, sandy shorelines, gentle waves, barbecue and family … made even better if the weekend includes camping in one of Michigan's many state parks," he e-mailed in response to the query.

Santino suggested the Wakenights' holiday weekend thinking is fairly typical.

"Often, I think people engage in a leisure activity, say a cook-out, but are aware on some level that they are celebrating Memorial Day by doing this," he said via e-mail. "The holiday also has developed into a kind of national day of remembrance, not restricted to the military."

Time Off With Family

Florence Kaslow, a psychologist who has looked at the expectations and disappointments of holidays, suggested they may fill some emotional need for Americans.

"I think if people need time to be with family, to be with friends, to catch up on things, these extra days have a celebratory note to them; it makes them important," she said. "It [a holiday] can be spent in part celebrating the meaning and in part celebrating what people want to enjoy. … Their going to the beach doesn't make the troops more or less safe."

Besides, Parks added, vacation-starved Americans need their family and leisure time.

A holiday is "not only a day off from work, it's a way of structuring our annual time," she said, noting that American holidays are neatly spaced out over the seasons. "It's almost like hitting the reset button. You get to spend time with family and friends. You enjoy the food. It's something that we can count on."

Family gatherings also perform another function, she said.

"There's usually an unspoken agreement to be as nice as you can," Parks said. "It re-establishes what families are. … You create almost this snapshot of a happy family to help you survive the rest of the stuff."

Deeper Meaning

But should some holidays have more solemn moments? The popularity, significance and traditions of individual holidays often evolve over time, and, as Santino noted, "since Sept. 11, militaristic and patriotic holidays [such as Memorial Day] … have enjoyed a resurgence."

Bob and Patti Loomis of St. Charles, Ill., who come from families of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, said time can be made for cookouts and parties, but after attention is paid to Memorial Day remembrances "to let the vets know they will not be forgotten."

"They [should] at least sit back while enjoying these days with friends and family and realize that the only reason they are able to do so is because of the sacrifices our vets/countrymen have made for all Americans over the course of history, beginning with the Civil War," the couple wrote in a jointly signed e-mail.

Bob Loomis, a Vietnam War-era Navy veteran, said he recently questioned co-workers at his job as a truck inspector and mechanic about their lack of attention to the meaning of the day.

"I had them staring off into space thinking," he said. "One of the guys that I talked to yesterday, he was one of the first people over in 'Nam. … I think I got him turned around."

Several of Loomis' co-workers were Vietnam veterans, he said -- but some people interviewed for this story speculated that Americans rarely gave Memorial Day deep thoughts in the recent past because some were not from military families or did not relate viscerally to America's war dead.

Even Nylin, the Iraq war veteran visiting war memorials in Washington, said he could understand from experience why people might want to clear their minds at the beach or a "Star Wars" flick on the first big summer movie weekend.

"I could put myself in their shoes, because at one time that's the way it was for me," Nylin said. "Prior to my military service, I didn't know what Memorial Day was about. I never much thought about it. It was a day off school or a day off work. … But now, it's definitely a time for reflection, and I hope it's a time of reflection for everyone."