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 usmemorialday.org 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.
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
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.