Many Americans see this seemingly harmless holiday phrase as quite the faux pas.
The phrase "Happy Memorial Day" has sparked debate, particularly among veterans.
Wei-San Ooi via Getty Images
The phrase "Happy Memorial Day" has sparked debate, particularly among veterans.

We’re nearing Memorial Day, which to many Americans means time off work, permission to wear white, an occasion to fire up the grill, and other fun start-of-summer fare. If you scroll through Instagram on Monday, you’ll likely see a number of sunny (and hopefully socially distanced) photos with the caption “Happy Memorial Day!”

But the joyful word “happy” has rubbed some people the wrong way and caused quite a debate. Indeed, while Veterans Day is a time to honor all those who have served in the military, Memorial Day is meant to pay tribute to those military personnel who died while serving. Thus, the latter carries a more somber tone.

The holiday began three years after the Civil War ended and was known as Decoration Day ― a time to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. The designated date was May 30, and over time, observances became more widespread. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, moving Memorial Day to the last Monday in May.

For those who have lost loved ones in the military, hearing “Happy Memorial Day” can feel jarring. Many veterans have expressed their displeasure with the phrase, deeming it inappropriate for the occasion.

In 2015, Marine Corps veteran Jennie Haskamp wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which she shared her frustration with the sentiment of “Happy Memorial Day” and the holiday’s transformation into “grilled meat, super-duper discounts, a day (or two) off work, beer, potato salad and porches draped in bunting.” Instead, she argued, it should be more than that.

“How is it then, some century and a half later, after more than a decade of war in two countries that claimed the lives of some 6,861 Americans, we are collectively more concerned with having a barbecue and going shopping than pausing to appreciate the cost of our freedom to do so?” Haskamp wrote.

Others have argued that using Memorial Day as an opportunity to celebrate with loved ones and embrace the joy that life has to offer is a fitting way to honor those who died in service of our country and its spirit of liberty. There has also been pushback against the at-times sanctimonious Memorial Day memes which depict grieving military wives and children along with the descriptions like, “Memorial Day, in case you thought it was National BBQ Day.”

In 2015, former Navy Pilot Ken Harbaugh wrote an Observer op-ed titled “It’s Perfectly OK to Say ‘Happy Memorial Day.’

“I do not know a single veteran who expects the country to mark this holiday with 24 hours of uninterrupted sadness,” he said, noting that “however well intentioned, this attitude does nothing to preserve the memory of those who died defending our way of life. In fact, it does the opposite.”

While he agrees there’s room for “a bit more reverence” on this holiday, Harbaugh reflected on military cemetery visits he’s made on Memorial Day and the times he’s laughed and smiled remembering his lost loved ones and the fun times they shared. He wrote that the trappings of modern Memorial Day celebrations are part of the “pursuit of happiness” his buddies died defending.

“This Memorial Day, I will head to the ocean as the sun is coming up. I will spend some time alone, and think about those who never made it back,” he wrote. “Then I will return to my wife and kids and be grateful for my life. I will fire up the grill and invite friends over. And I will wish each of them a Happy Memorial Day, knowing full well that this day and the joy it brings are gifts I can never repay. Except, perhaps, by living a life full of happiness as my fallen friends would have wanted.”

Those who seek to remind people of the more somber meaning of Memorial Day have advocated for Congress to change the date of the holiday back to May 30, instead of making it part of a three-day weekend of leisure.

Though those efforts have not been successful, Congress established “The National Moment of Remembrance” in 2000, asking Americans to pause for a minute of silence and reflection in honor of those who died in military service at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day.

If you’re afraid of committing a potential faux pas this weekend, it’s probably best to avoid declaring, “Happy Memorial Day!” But perhaps more importantly, you can take some time to reflect on the meaning of this holiday.

In her Washington Post piece, Haskamp noted that a friend reminded her how many people use Memorial Day to “pause and remember the men and women who paid the price of our freedom, and then go on about enjoying those freedoms.” But she believes not enough people commemorate the occasion in this way.

“Not enough people pause. Not enough people remember,” she wrote, ultimately concluding, “I hope you enjoy your weekend — but I hope you pause to remember, too.”

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