Today, Americans around the world are gathering in backyards, gravesides, union halls, and parks to celebrate the sacrifice of our military veterans.

Memorial Day is a Celebration of  Sacrifice

The most familiar tradition of this day is the commemoration of those military men and women who sacrificed their life in battle for the love of family and call to service on behalf of the Unites States of America. Susan McConnell writing for the Jacksonville Daily News says,

On Memorial Day, take time to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military for the freedoms our citizens enjoy. Every life given in the pursuit of defending our liberties deserves tribute from those who live to enjoy it.

This Memorial Day, take time to thank a veteran, current military personnel, and military family members. Fly the American flag proudly. Pray for our nation’s political leaders and troops serving to defend our freedom. Make a pledge to uphold the freedoms granted in our Constitution and find ways to improve life in local communities.

The sacrifice of our military should never be forgotten.

Yet, there is more to this day than we often consider. Stephen Douglas Wilson & Myriah Snyder describe the history of Memorial Day with these colorful images.

Memorial Day is a Spring Celebration of Life

Memorial Day for most Americans is a day set aside to honor fallen American veterans, but the holiday itself has its origins in the pre-Civil War South when families, and even whole churches, honored the dead in late spring or early summer. Decoration Day occurred in the rural South’s calendar after spring planting, but before long summer days required extensive hoeing and maintenance of the crops and livestock.

Memorial Day is a Christian Celebration of Community

Parts of the rural South still celebrate Decoration Day in its traditional southern form. The literal definition of Decoration Day or “Decoration,” as it is sometimes called, taken from the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, is: “An occasion on which a family or a church congregation gathers … to place flowers on the graves of loved ones and to hold a memorial service for them. Traditionally this involved singing, dinner on the ground as well as a religious service.”

Largely surviving in the rural South as a family event, Decoration Day once was a corporate event for rural churches. The day included such activities as cleaning up the church cemetery, placing fresh flowers on the graves, a sermon by the pastor and a dinner on the ground(s). During the sermon, the pastor would recount how those now buried in the plots influenced the life of the church and provided a positive testimony to current church members. Some rural churches today, particularly in southern Appalachia, still continue the corporate celebration of Decoration Day or its variants (“Cemetery Day”).

Decoration Day, whether observed by families or a rural church, is steeped in Christian values and symbolism. Southern Christians, particularly Baptists of the rural South, tended to reject the autumn observances of remembering the Christian dead that focused on All Saints Day or All Souls Day (Nov. 1 and 2) as practiced by some faith denominations. Instead, they placed Decoration Day in the late spring at a time that nature itself symbolized resurrection. Newly decorated graves in springtime, all facing east to meet the Lord for the future resurrection, seemed more appropriate to these rural congregants. The custom of planting cedar trees (the evergreen cedar illustrates eternal life) or flowering trees such as dogwoods or ornamental fruit trees (symbols of resurrection) near gravesites also conveyed aspects of Christian symbolism.

Memorial Day is a Celebration for Families

Fellowship among those who observed Decoration Day reflected the words of Bible in Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” As they gathered together, living Christians remembered those who nourished them in the faith. Consequently, Decoration Day often provided the opportunity for family members to hold reunions during the Memorial Day weekend. Hardly an entirely somber event, Decoration Day always balanced reflection and celebration. Fellowship and a communal meal took place in tandem with the respectful graveside observance.

Wherever you are this Memorial Day, I pray you are able to both commemorate and celebrate the beauty of sacrifice, the joy of life, the comfort of Divine-community, and the treasure of family.

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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