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Family Talk: Keeping liberty and justice alive in the family

How will you and your family spend Memorial Day? [THINKSTOCK PHOTO]

How will you and your family spend Memorial Day? [THINKSTOCK PHOTO]

It's the last week of May and it's time to celebrate Decoration Day! What?! You've never heard of Decoration Day? Well, it's the same as Memorial Day — a holiday that everyone enjoys but few take the time to dig into. Lucky for you, I did the digging!

Apparently, there has been no end to controversy over the years about this holiday. The holiday was originally referred to as “Decoration Day,” and that's how I knew it growing up. It was called Decoration Day because it was a day to “decorate” with flowers or wreaths the graves of fallen soldiers. This tradition started shortly after the Civil War. But no one knows exactly who or where it got started.

There has been a lot of fighting about who started the holiday. Eventually, Congress declared (over many protests) Decoration Day was started by a banker and a druggist in the upstate New York town of Waterloo.

Then there was controversy about the date. Should it be May 30 (which is when the North celebrated it) or June 3, or various other dates commemorated in the South? There was further controversy over whether it should be called Decoration Day or Memorial Day. All that was finally settled around 1971 when a federal law went into effect declaring the name of the holiday as Memorial Day and moving it to the last Monday in May. Many states were reluctant to go along with the new law (wanting to stick with their own traditional date) but finally, everyone got on board and now the whole country calls it Memorial Day and celebrates it on the last Monday in May.

It's ironic there has been so much fighting over a holiday to celebrate those who died fighting.

But Memorial Day is not only about honoring the dead — it's also about a commitment from the living. I didn't know this until recently, but on Memorial Day, the U.S. flag is supposed to be raised briskly to the top of the staff at daybreak, and then solemnly lowered to half staff, where it remains only until noon. At noon it is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers those who gave their lives in service of their country, but when the flag is fully raised at noon, it represents the resolve of the living to not allow those veterans to have died in vain. It is supposed to mark the commitment of us, the living, to “rise up” and continue the fight for liberty and justice.

How do you and your family plan to celebrate Memorial Day? Picnic? Maybe a parade? Watch the Indy 500? How about this? You could decorate a deceased veteran's grave. Or gather your family around to hang out a flag at your house and tell them about the half mast/full mast tradition. Remind them it falls to all of us to continue to fight for liberty and justice each day. Celebrate Memorial Day this year by making it memorable.

Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at jpriest@sunbeamfamilyservices.org.

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