This weekend, area residents will celebrate Memorial Day, and visitors are expected to pour into Cherokee County to enjoy much-anticipated leisure time at the Illinois River, or Lakes Tenkiller and Fort Gibson. For many, it will be the first opportunity to cut loose since the COVID pandemic took hold.

But in our haste to enjoy ourselves with our friends and family, we must not lose sight of the real reason for Memorial Day: to pay tribute to those who lost their lives through military service to this country.

Its origins go back as far as the Civil War, when on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse. That terrible four-year conflict, which pitted "brother against brother," as the Cherokees used to refer to it, took the lives of more than 620,000 soldiers. It was Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans, who ultimately picked May 30, 1868, as a day to honor the fallen.

This was, in part, the declaration: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land…”

Memorial Day ceremonies were held on May 30 all across the country by the end of the 19th century. Proclamations were passed, and both the Navy and Army set regulations for proper observances. American flags were placed on graves at the Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere. Only in recent years has it become tradition to decorate the gravesites of not just dead soldiers and sailors, but all those who have passed before us.

By 1890, Northern states had declared what was then called "Decoration Day" an official holiday. Citizens of the South also honored their dead, but only after World War I did they join their fellow Americans to the north in setting aside May 30. Congress in 1968 passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which marked Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, so federal employees could have a three-day holiday.

But Memorial Day isn't really a holiday – not in the sense we usually think of it. It's a day to express gratitude, contemplate, pray, and quietly remember one of the reasons the U.S. is special – and the people who got us there. Even as we enjoy hotdogs around campfires, a float down the river or a turn on the lake behind a ski boat, it is appropriate for us to acknowledge the sacrifices made by those who are no longer with us.

We can also honor our ancestors by celebrating prudently and with caution, keeping in mind our own welfare and that of others. That means going easy on the alcohol, and not getting behind the wheel if we overindulge. It means consideration for others around us who are enjoying the holiday with their own loved ones. It means understanding our individual roles in the grand scheme of things and realizing that we are, after all, "out of many, one."

While some of us may engage in diversions this weekend, others will maintain the tradition of decorating graves, honoring the countless other Americans who paid the price for those who came after them. Whatever we do, let us not squander their priceless gift.

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