Reinventing Memorial Day: Creating Inconvenience and Relevance

Memorial Day has become just another excuse for a long weekend. Steve McCallion is exploring a way to bring back its meaning to Americans.

As I discussed in my previous post, the significance of Memorial Day, like other national holidays, has been overrun with America's drive for convenience and consumption, and an opportunity to connect people to America's core promise has been lost. As with any global brand, this gap between the promise and experience of Brand America will make it increasingly difficult to compete in the future.

So how did we get here? How did Memorial Day become about mattress sales and three-day weekends rather than an opportunity for collective purpose and identity? And is it possible for Memorial Day to reconnect people to America's core promise of "freedom and opportunity through sacrifice and unity"?

Convenience Is the Enemy of Meaning
Memorial Day wasn't always about convenience and consumption. Initially a solemn day, it was recognized—like New Year's, Christmas and your birthday—on the same date every year: May 30. And like those holidays, it moved inconveniently across the days of the week.

This changed in 1971 when Congress enacted the National Holiday Act, shifting Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday of May, creating a three-day weekend. This seemingly insignificant move made it both more convenient and less meaningful. Discussions about Memorial Day, if they continued to occur, shifted from remembrance to vacation planning.

Consider for contrast the way Turkey still memorializes the death of its founding father, Mustafa Atatürk. For one minute at 9:05am, on November 10 of each year, the country grinds to a halt: cars stop and shut down, business transactions cease, and all conversation is suspended, for one minute, in every Turkish town. It's terribly disruptive and incredibly powerful—an expression of unity and remembrance absent in American observances.

Similarly, when a fallen Canadian soldier is brought home, a section of that nation's busiest highway is shut down to civilian traffic as the flag-draped casket is transported from the Canadian Forces base into Toronto. The ensuing pause brings thousands of Canadians to bridges and overpasses, in a procession with far more personal impact than the most elaborate annual parade.

The key to both of these examples is sacrifice—something modern Memorial Day remembrances are missing—a forgotten element of the American promise for a country distracted by the false promise of instant gratification.

How important is it for America to remember? Congressional efforts to return the holiday to May 30 have been so far unsuccessful, yet popular support is strong. An online petition to that effect has gathered nearly 14,000 signatures, and one survey at reports 68% of Americans in favor of the return. Even with the inconvenience and loss of a brief vacation, it appears, we're willing to sacrifice for meaning.

Independence and Unity is the Promise
Our drive for convenience has also compromised an opportunity to reinforce another key component of the American promise: unity. With increasingly divisive talk throughout the country, it's difficult to remember that unity is fundamental to the American promise. Regardless of how you feel about war, Memorial Day is a missed opportunity to bring America together.

Recent efforts to do this are steps in the right direction, but fall short. In December of 2000, a "national moment of remembrance" resolution was passed asking Americans to "voluntarily and informally observe their own moment of respect" at 3pm local time. Unfortunately this makes the same bargain as the Holiday Act, sacrificing authenticity and meaning for convenience: the "moment" occurs at a different time in each time zone across the nation, at the expense of collective action.

Nostalgia Does not Equal Relevance
Other well-intended efforts to resurrect the meaning of Memorial Day fail to connect with a new generation. In 2004, the nation's capital held a traditional Memorial Day parade for the first time in 60 years, complete with marching bands, color guards and patriotic floats. 60 years ago parades were the way to bring a community together. Today, while well-intentioned and respectful, such a revival is largely irrelevant.

Meaning is not about turning back the clock, it's about creating relevance, and a powerful modern observance begins with understanding the current generation. Today's young adults understand things differently. They are connected 24/7, receive information in bite-size pieces, consider social good integral to daily life, and are overwhelmed by over 3000 communication messages each day.

One example that speaks to this reality is the Iraq Body Count Exhibit, a traveling installation that plants red and white flags in public spaces around Memorial Day to help visualize the deaths of both US and Iraqi soldiers associated with the Iraq war. It takes 200 volunteers to set up, and has its own Facebook group. It helps people visualize the impact of war in a relevant way, and disrupts behavior—there will be no picnics or Frisbee in the park today. This makes it powerful.

To be successful, Memorial Day observances will have to take forms unrecognizable to the marching-band-and-color-guard set.

What's Next?
So what does an inconvenient, relevant Memorial Day look like? Is it possible for America to come together to remember at the same time? Check back tomorrow for my third post, where we'll share some ideas that could make a difference and reconnect a new generation with Memorial Day and the American Experience.

More from Steve McCallion's Reinventing Memorial Day series

Memorial Day march photo by Flickr user M. Hess; Canadian memorial by Flickr user Lot76; Body Count photo by Flickr user Kight P / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Read Steve McCallion's blog Beyond the Widget
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Steve McCallion, executive creative director at design and innovation consultancy Ziba Design, is a skilled innovation architect and brand strategist. His groundbreaking work includes redefining Umpqua Bank's role as an anchor for community prosperity, creating Sirius Satellite Radio's award-winning experience for the "iPod fatigued," and working with real estate developers Gerding Edlen to create more meaningful neighborhoods. Other clients include Xerox, Black & Decker, Whirlpool, FedEx, McDonald's, Coleman, Kenwood, and Compaq. Steve's primary charge is to foster Ziba's consumer experience practice. He founded the company's award-winning Design Research and Planning practice group, which has developed proprietary research and design planning methodologies.

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  • Gerry Wright

    Destroyer's comment (interesting handle) is inconsistent with reality from a historical perspective, but then it is obvious Destroyer does not grasp reality with any experience. Destroyer exemplifies the philosophy of the protected, but shows no respect with regard to those who have provided that lifestyle to Destroyer. Destroyer associates violence with the military and wants to disassociate freedom from the need to protect these rights proving Destroyer's lack of reality. Many of us spend quiet moments thinking about why we are able to celebrate the freedoms we have, but we also know how we got there. Something Destroyer will never understand because Destroyer has no responsibility or ownership of with regard to the concept of freedom. I appreciate the likes of Destroyer providing the example needed to demonstrate this reality. Destroyer will never need to be concerned about Scientific Progress Day or Freedom Day because those who have been immortalized and recognized by Memorial Day have preserved that ideology. Memorial Day will live forever Destroyer even though you don't like it. It is unfortunate you represent ignorance with your comments but understandable given the circumstances.

  • Destroyer

    Chinese.... Learn to speak Chinese.

    I disagree: Freedom and violence are not intrinsically connected. It is important to know of times in the past when violence was used and under what circumstances. I do not like the ceremony and patriotic displays that accompany the ritualized remembrance of soldiers. It seems silly to me and backwards to me. Perhaps we should get rid of Memorial Day all together and replace it with 'Scientific Progress Day' or 'Freedom Day'. We could disassociate the desirable thing, Freedom, with the unnecessary and undesirable thing, military violence. We can spend a quiet moment hoping for a day when humans are smart enough not to kill each other.

  • Gerry Wright

    You have got to be kidding me? I can't believe the shallow self centered comments posted here. I understand why these people can't figure out why Memorial Day has no meaning to them, they don't have a clue what sacrifice is and have never had to preserve their freedom. It does take some effort to learn what it means, but that obviously would be too strenuous a task for these people to undertake. It is obvious the author as well as some of the people who have commented here lack any sense of how they got the freedoms they have, nor do they appreciate the sacrifices others have made to protect those freedoms. It is a good thing this country didn't have to depend on them now or in the future to insure our way of life. We would be speaking German or Russian if that was the case. Freedom has a flavor only those who have fought for it will ever know. Thanks for confirming that statement.

  • Peter Lucash

    Um, excuse me but Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War. The first such celebration, many believem was actually in Charleston, SC. The day was to remember the hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed in the war.

    As for President Obama's schedule - if you call spending the weekend in Chicago as a "vacation", so be it. His schedule is to be at a Memorial Day observance at a National Cemetary in the Chicago area. This is a president who was gone out to meet planes carrying coffins of US soldiers killsed in the Iraq/Afghanistn wars. Further down in the FOX News writeup, they note that the Arlington ceremony isn't exactly a long tradition:
    "The Arlington visit is a fairly recent tradition. Former President Ronald Reagan attended four of them in his eight years in office, while former President George H.W. Bush sent Vice President Dan Quayle to every one. Former President Bill Clinton, though, attended every year and George W. Bush missed only one, in 2002, when he was in Normandy, France, visiting the American cemetery."

    If Obama didn't do anything, that would certainly be an issue. Our service men and women, both vets and those who died in the line of duty, are buried in cemetaries all over the country. He IS going to a cemetary at another national cemetary - maybe that would be a better practice? Or just different?

  • Destroyer

    The reason Memorial Day holds no power for me is that, the USA, as a social and political entity is not something I strongly identify with. The author here has insightfully drawn the distinction between 'promise and experience' in America, but it is not the branding that needs to change. For the average American, the gap between the promise of freedom and true universal freedom is too wide to inspire anything but cynicism, a defeatist's sense of complacency, or a hope for something truer and more pure. I am enthusiastic about the potential of humanity as a whole, and the idea of a nation is quickly becoming obsolete in the face of technologies which have an even stronger ability to unite people. The United States' time on this earth has been good, but I am ready to see something better. I am ready to see the amalgamation of all the world's nations under one new order of understanding, peace, scientific discovery, and self actualization. It is my firm belief that our specie's technology will enable this.

    Until I get what I want, I like Memorial Day better when it is about mattress sales. I don't want to be reminded of people who have died in the service of this country unless I take a history class. I really don't care.

  • Robert Worstell

    And perhaps we should start restoring our respect for this holi-day by having our own President put the wreath at the Unknown Soldier Tomb himself, instead of his jetting off to his second vacation in a month.

    But this all starts with you and me and how we respect each other's efforts to make this place a little better every day. Remembering the sacrifices others have made so we can enjoy the lifestyle we choose - that's not the least we can do to add value to our lives and those around us.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Maybe the problem is, Memorial Day was never intended to be anything other than a commercial break. The history of American labor relations has always been problematic. Although it's pitched as a replacement for Armistice Day in November, commemorating the end of World War I, Memorial Day actually subs for the May Day that was essentially cancelled in America because of its revolutionary roots. It's imbued with a remnant of class warfare and thus needs to be neutralized for hegemonic purposes, despite the fact that America's ruling class won the contest long ago,in the early 20th Century. To try and revive meanings that are at best secondary or even tertiary, overlays to a fundamentally divisive origin for Memorial Day, is nostalgia of the first order. When wars end and we redress the damage done to the American worker over the last century, maybe then Memorial Day can become a source of national calm and unity. Until then, seeking the holiday's reformation is quixotic.

  • Doug

    I am in agreement with Chris - excellent, well written post. 100% behind returning Memorial Day to a day of significance. We get to write anything we want, here and else where because of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. Your points on how bringing back the significance would foster, even a moment of unity to our collective are spot on.


  • Chris Reich

    Refreshing to read a meaningful post rather than how some rapper is a "business, man" or Wal-Mart is the greatest company on earth by using fewer plastic bags.


    Chris Reich