Why do we celebrate Memorial Day? Hint: the holiday has nothing to do with store sales or open-toed shoes! Most of us have lost the meaning behind holidays such as Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Celebrating Memorial Day with primary sources is a great way to find our way back.
Using primary sources to teach why we celebrate Memorial Day is a terrific way to connect students to the historical meaning behind the three-day weekend.
Memorial Day honors the people who died serving our country. Veteran’s Day honors all who have served or are serving the country, but Memorial Day is simply to remember the dead.
People began informally marking the day in the years after the Civil War, when many families had lost at least one son or father to the long war. Back then, they called it Decoration Day. For a while, it remained a day to honor only those fallen in the Civil War, but as the country found itself embroiled in conflict again and again, the holiday grew to accommodate the other brave souls who lost their lives. Memorial Day was declared a national holiday in 1970.
Right now, more than 2 million people are serving in the U.S. military. That’s a small percentage of the population though, and it can be hard for kids, and adults, to imagine the strength and dedication it takes to put oneself in danger for the sake of what can be nebulous concepts: freedom, security, the American way of life. Even patriotic speeches can deflate the reality of war and remembrance instead of lifting it to a comprehensible level for kids. How do we teach about a holiday meant to honor the men and women who died serving their country with respect, historical responsibility, and interest?
Primary sources can help. Real-life descriptions of what it’s like on the front line can bring the reality of a war into sharp relief against the backdrop of our own daily lives. And only by rendering the experience of war into something believable can we hope to guide the next generation of decision makers and volunteers.
Here are a few places to find terrific primary sources for learning about Memorial Day in your classroom.
American History: Nursing
Library of Congress Holidays of the Past
The Vietnam Memorial
Women in WWII
The Story of Taps
Stories from Soldiers
Questions to consider:
- How does reading or looking at primary sources change your understanding of the holiday?
- How are you going to spend Memorial Day now that you know what the day is in remembrance of?
- Why is it important to read diary entries from soldiers and other people who witnessed different battles and wars? What can we gain from their experiences?
- Do you think war today is different than war in the 1800s? How is it different? How is it the same?
- What does the following quote mean to you?
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life for something bigger than oneself.” ~ Joseph Campbell
Happy Memorial Day everyone! Celebrate with primary sources!