Memorial Day: Americans honor fallen soldiers, set records for weekend travel

A Memorial Day ceremony. Photo by rawpixel.com / U.S. Army (Source), courtesy of Rawpixel

MONDAY, MAY 27: Across America, cities abound with parades and ceremonies for fallen soldiers, accented by the scent of barbecues firing up for the season: It’s Memorial Day!

The unofficial start of summer in America began, less than two centuries ago, as a solemn observance for the war that had consumed more lives than any other U.S. conflict. While memorial services still abound, the national holiday also means picnics, beaches, fireworks and, of course, travel, as Americans enjoy a three-day weekend.

2024 travel update: AAA’s forecast for 2024 says that this year will see the one of the highest Memorial Day travel forecasts since 2000; this year is expected to set a record for road-trip travel. 

Scroll down in this story to read our best holiday tips. However, before we list those links, let’s celebrate a tireless historian who helped Americans recover our history of this more-than-150-year-old observance.

A PULITZER FOR THE HOLIDAY’S HISTORIAN

Memorial Day began as an annual, grassroots practice of sprucing up the gravesites of the countless Americans who died during the Civil War. That’s why, for many years, the observance was called Decoration Day, describing the flowers and colorful flags that seemed to sprout across cemeteries each spring.

For much of the 20th Century, however, the painful early roots of this observance were forgotten as proud civic boosters across the country tried to claim their own unique slices of this history. Then, Yale historian David W. Blight researched and corrected the record, finally honoring the fact that the courageous pioneers in observing this holiday were former slaves in the South who dared to decorate Yankee graves. In his history, Race and ReunionBlight writes: “Decoration Day, and the many ways in which it is observed, shaped Civl War memory as much as any other cultural ritual.” Here’s a link to a 2022 ReadTheSpirit column that tells more about Blight’s history of the original Decoration Day in the South.

Blight continued to research race and American memory in that era and eventually was honored with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in history for his in-depth biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

MEMORIAL DAY & CIVIL RELIGION

The famed sociologist of American religion, Robert Bellah, also shaped the evolution of Memorial Day’s meaning in a landmark article he published in a 1967 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He called his long article “Civil Religion in America,” taking the centuries-old concept of “civil religion” and kicked off decades of fresh research into how our civil religion defines our American culture. You can read Bellah’s entire original article online.

A few lines from Bellah’s article about Memorial Day …
Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.

Then—The Civil War raised the deepest questions of national meaning. The man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied its meaning for Americans was Abraham Lincoln. For him the issue was not in the first instance slavery but “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” … With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian “New Testament” among the civil scriptures.

WANT SOME HOLIDAY IDEAS?

Kara Zauberman of The Food Network’s Pioneer Woman compiled “50 Best Memorial Day Recipes for Your Holiday Cookout.”

Better Homes & Gardens has “12 Things to Do for Memorial Day Weekend with Family and Friends

Good Housekeeping has “21 Special Memorial Day Activities Your Family Can Do Together

Country Living has “33 Best Things to Do on Memorial Day for Kids and Adults

Vesak: Buddhists celebrate ‘triple gem,’ Buddha’s birthday, death and enlightenment

Indonesian Buddhists perform a ritual “Buddha bathing” using fragrant water, to welcome Vesak. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, MAY 23: Lanterns glow in Buddhist communities worldwide today, as the collective birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha is observed: it is the holiday known as Vesak. Also called Visakha Puja or Wesak (spellings vary), Vesak begins before dawn in many regions, with ceremonies, decorated temples, shared vegetarian meals and deep meditation. This holy day is greeted by devout Buddhists across Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, the Phillippines, Thailand and several other South East Asian countries—along with various other locations across the globe.

Did you know? In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly recognized internationally the Day of Vesak. In this year’s Day of Vesak message, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote:

“Last October, I had the privilege of travelling to the Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini, Nepal. This deeply inspiring visit re-affirmed my conviction that the Buddha’s timeless teachings of peace, compassion and service to others are the pathway to a better, more understanding and harmonious world for all.

Today and every day, let us be guided by the spirit of Vesak and by a renewed faith in what we can accomplish as a united human family.”

Vesak lanterns

Vesak lanterns. Photo by Nazly Ahmed,
www.nazly.me, courtesy of Flickr

Buddhism has been practiced for millennia, but it wasn’t until 1950 that the official decision was made—at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists—to observe Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday. Today, devotees bring offerings to temples—such as flowers or candles—in representation of the objects of this world that fade away. It is expected that Buddhists will try to bring some happiness to the unfortunate on this significant day, and review the Four Noble Truths.

Did you know? The design of the Buddhist flag is based on the six colors of the aura believed to have surrounded Buddha after his enlightenment. It is used in almost 60 countries, especially during Vesak.

In commemoration of three major events—the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the historical Buddha—Vesak is recognized by all Buddhist sects. It acknowledges the peace that Buddha brought to the world through the “triple gem”: Buddha himself, the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (Buddha’s disciples). Most Buddhists today use candles and small lamps to illuminate temples, streets and homes, representing the light of Buddha’s teachings. In Japan, legend has it that a dragon appeared in the sky on Buddha’s birthday and poured soma (a ritual drink) over him.

Interested in making your own Vesak lantern? Check out this site’s DIY instructions, which include using everyday materials such as drinking straws and tissue paper.

Pentecost: Western Christians embrace Holy Spirit’s descent, more, with ancient feast

receiving oil on forehead, pentecost

A girl receives oil on her forehead on Pentecost Sunday in England. Photo by Marcin Marzur, via Catholic Church England and Wales, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, MAY 19: Today, the ancient feast of Pentecost is marked with red drapery and vestments, symbols of the Holy Spirit, processions and holy sacraments. Traditionally, Pentecost falls seven weeks after the Christian Easter.

In Christian tradition, Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, women and other followers of Jesus, giving them the ability to speak in many languages for the purpose of spreading the Word of God. In this manner, some Christians regard Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.”

ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS—This year, Pentecost is observed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church on June 23, as Pascha (Easter) was celebrated weeks after the Western Christian Easter.

TRADITIONAL STORY

According to the Book of Acts and Christian tradition: Approximately 120 followers of Christ were gathered on the morning that the Pentecost took place, in the Upper Room. Then, a roar of wind came into the room, and tongues of fire descended upon those in the room. With the gift of the tongues of fire, those gathered believed evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit; they began speaking many different languages. Peter proclaimed the fulfillment of a prophesy.

When the group left the Upper Room, a crowd had gathered. While some accused the followers of Christ of sputtering drunken babble, Peter corrected them and declared that an ancient prophesy had been fulfilled. When the crowds asked what they could do, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized—which thousands did.

As is stated by Catholic Culture.org: Pentecost (Whitsunday), with Christmas and Easter, ranks among the great feasts of Christianity. It commemorates not only the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Disciples, but also the fruits and effects of that event: the completion of the work of redemption, the fullness of grace for the Church and its children, and the gift of faith for all nations.

PENTECOST IN THE WEST:
FIRE AND DOVES

Pentecost services in the Western Christian Church often involve red flowers, vestments and banners, all representing the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire. Trumpets and brass ensembles may depict the sound of the “mighty wind” in a musical manner. There is even an old tradition of Holy Ghost holes in the roofs of churches, so that the Holy Spirit could “descend” upon the congregation; at Pentecost, the holes were decorated and a dove was lowered into the church. In Italy, rose petals scattered from above represent the fiery tongues; in parts of England, Whit Fairs and Morris dancing were commonplace on Whitsunday, or Pentecost.

Mother’s Day: Americans give thanks for Mom

mother child Mother's Day

Photo by Family_Moments, courtesy of Freerange Stock

SUNDAY, MAY 12: Happy Mother’s Day!

Express gratitude to Mom, Grandma or any maternal figure in your life on this, the second Sunday of May—celebrated in many of the world’s countries as Mother’s Day.

Did you know? Mother’s Day yields the highest U.S. church attendance after Christmas Eve and Easter. Most churches honor their congregation’s mothers in some way—with a special prayer, perhaps, or (in many congregations) with a flower.

A DAY FOR MOM: ANNA JARVIS

Although motherhood has been celebrated for millennia, the modern American version of Mother’s Day—the one we all know today—began in 1908 with Anna Jarvis. Determined to bring awareness to the vital role of each mother in her family, Jarvis began campaigning for a “Mother’s Day,” and finally was successful in reaching the whole country in 1914. Jarvis’s concept differed considerably from corporate interests in the holiday, however, and the over-commercialization of Mother’s Day was irritating to Jarvis as early as the 1920s. This year, in honor of the Mother’s Day centennial, honor Mom the way Jarvis intended: with a hand-written letter, a visit, a homemade gift or a meal, cooked from scratch.

Cooking Mom brunch? Look to Martha Stewart (for gift ideas, too!) and AllRecipes.

Though American observances honoring mothers began popping up in the 1870s and 1880s, Jarvis’s campaigns were the first to make it beyond the local level. The first “official” Mother’s Day service was actually a memorial ceremony, held at Jarvis’s church, in 1908; the 500 carnations given out at that first celebration have given way to the widespread custom of distributing carnations to mothers on this day. For Anna, the floral choice was easy: Carnations were her mother’s favorite flowers.

CYBELE, MOTHERING SUNDAY AND MOTHER’S DAY

While the modern observance of Mother’s Day began just a century ago, celebrations for women and mothers have been common throughout history. Greeks worshipped the mother goddess Cybele, while the Romans held the festival of Hilaria; Christians have observed Mothering Sunday for centuries, while Hindus have honored “Mata Tirtha Aunshi,” or “Mother Pilgrimage Fortnight.” The first American attempts for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” arose in the 1870s, when Julia Ward Howe called on mothers to support disarmament in the Civil War and Franco-Prussian War. Several decades later, Anna Jarvis created a holiday that became the Mother’s Day we know today.

Despite Jarvis’s best efforts, though, the commercialization of Mother’s Day was inevitable: Mother’s Day is now one of the most financially successful holidays on the American calendar.

Today, Mother’s Day is the most popular day of the year to eat out and to make phone calls. Yet it is with Mom in mind that Americans spend $2.6 billion on flowers annually for Mother’s Day; $1.53 billion on gifts; and $68 million on greeting cards. We love you, Mom!

Ascension of the Lord (Ascension Day): Christians observe ancient, pivotal feast

stained glass, Jesus Ascension Day

Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, MAY 9 (or, in some denominations, observed on the nearest Sunday, MAY 12): As Pentecost approaches, the Christian church observes a feast central to the faith since its earliest days: the Feast of the Ascension, known also as Ascension Day. On this date—or, as some Roman Catholic churches will hold services on the Sunday following, along with some regional Ecclesiastical provinces—Christians commemorate the bodily ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Each year, the Feast of the Ascension takes place on the 40th day after Easter. Though no documents give testament to the feast’s existence prior to the 5th century, St. Augustine referred to it as a universal observance of Apostolic origin.

Did you know? In Roman Catholicism, the Ascension of the Lord is ranked as a solemnity and is a Holy Day of Obligation; in the Anglican Communion, Ascension Day is a Principal Feast.

MOUNT OF OLIVES & ASCENSIO

On the 40th day after Jesus’s Resurrection, it’s believed that he gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives and blessed them there. Jesus asked them to wait for the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, to be witnesses and to “make disciples of all nations.” Jesus then ascended into Heaven, when, according to the story as recounted in Acts: Jesus was lifted up in a cloud.

The feast’s Latin term, ascensio, indicates the belief that Christ was raised up by his own powers. Traditionally, beans and fruits were blessed on this feast day, and the Paschal candle’s flame is quenched. In some churches, the Christ figure was lifted through an opening in the roof on the Feast of the Ascension.

Activities: It is customary to eat a type of bird on this day, to represent Christ’s “flight” to Heaven. As Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives, it is also common—in hilly or mountainous areas—to picnic on a hilltop.

Note: In the Eastern Orthodox Christian church, the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ takes place 40 days after Pascha.

Great and Holy Pascha: Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Resurrection of Jesus

Pink tulips, colored eggs, one fancy painted egg, in basket

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNDAY, MAY 5: The glorious day has arrived and millions of Christians the world over are rejoicing in the Resurrection of Jesus. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, today is the Great and Holy Pascha. So named because of its reference to Jesus, the paschal lamb (St. John indicates that Jesus was crucified at the time the paschal lambs were being killed), in addition to the historical occurrence of Jesus’ crucifixion during the Passover feast, Orthodox Christians hold dear the name of Pascha. The Orthodox Research Institute does indicate, however, that the word Easter may be used interchangeably with Pascha in mixed company, for both titles hail the same event that defines the very essence of Christianity: the Resurrection (and eventual Ascension) of Jesus.

Pascha services begin in the darkness of Saturday evening, running late into the night. Just before midnight, a celebrant walks to the church’s temporary “tomb,” and removes the cover sheet: and behold, Jesus is not there! The sheet is carried to the altar table, and at midnight, the magnificent Pascha procession begins.  (Learn more from Orthodox Church in America.)

The Paschal Troparion is sung, together with the verses of Psalm 68, which from now will signal the start of every service during the Easter season. In a church adorned in flowers, attendants face the Easter icon: an image of Christ destroying the gates of hell and freeing Adam and Eve from death. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly joyous; hymns announce victory over death, and all are invited to partake in the Holy Communion, of Christ, the Passover lamb.

RUSSIA & GREECE: KULICH, TSOUREKI, THE PASSOVER LAMB AND RED EGG LEGENDS

Unlike the Western Christian Lenten fast, which prohibits meat just on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Orthodox Lenten fast prohibits dairy and meat during the entire season—and so on Pascha, the feast is magnificent! A primary component of the Russian table today is pascha—a dense, cold cheesecake often made with curd cheese and dried fruits—alongside kulichi, soft fruit cakes. (Find an authentic recipe for pascha here. A recipe for kulich, or kulichi, is here.)

In Greece, grilled vegetables, bean salads, seafood and breads complement the centerpiece: the Pascha lamb. Spiced to perfection, the lamb (or, occasionally, goat) satisfies palates alongside the traditional tsoureki, a Greek bread that is decorated with red eggs. (Recipes for Greek lamb, soup, asparagus and tsoureki are in this article from National Public Radio.)

Why red eggs? Red eggs have long been an integral part of Eastern Orthodox Pascha, and with good reason: several legends tell of miracles that began with red eggs. In one, Mary Magdalene was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus, and when she saw the risen Jesus Christ, the eggs suddenly turned a vibrant red. In a different story, Mary Magdalene was spreading word of Jesus’ resurrection when she approached the doubtful Emperor of Rome. Upon her greeting, the emperor remarked that, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” With that, the egg turned a dark red. Yet another legend tells of Mary Magdalene’s egg turning red in the presence of Julius Caesar—and because of these miraculous stories, Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Pascha.

The next seven days—beginning today, on Pascha—are known as Bright Week, or Renewal Week.

Hanuman Jayanti: Hindus celebrate the half-human, half-monkey devotee of Lord Rama

Hanuman, for Hanuman Jayanti

Celebrating Hanuman Jayanti in Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo by Mahant Brijbhushan Das, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, APRIL 23: In many regions of India, today marks is the annual celebration of the birth of deity that is one-half human, and one-half monkey: It is Hanuman Jayanti.

Ever a steadfast and ardent devotee of Lord Rama, Hanuman often is honored along with Lord Rama; devotees of Hanuman hope to obtain his strength and energy. The Ramayana and other texts detail his crediting all superhuman powers to Lord Rama, labeling himself only as a servant of the deity. According to Times Now, Hanuman is one of the most popular deities in Hinduism.

NEWS: This year, Hanuman Jayanti is considered particularly auspicious, since it falls on a Tuesday. According to Hindu scriptures, Tuesdays are regarded as very auspicious days for seeking the blessings of Lord Hanuman.

HANUMAN: HUMILITY, COURAGE AND WILLPOWER

It is believed that Hanuman can assume any form, yet most notably, Hanuman is known for his humility. On his jayanti, Hindus across India flock to Hanuman temples, recite Hanuman Chalisa (song of Hanuman) and apply a reddish-orange tilaka to their foreheads, signifying the color of Hanuman.

Festivities for Hanuman Jayanti begin early, with pujas, trips to the temple and special prayers. Prayers and hymns continue throughout the day, as devotees look to Lord Hanuman to avert evil, bring courage and deliver willpower. Many Hindus fast and read the Hunuman Chalisa on his jayanti, before joining in Prasad—an offering of food distributed among devotees.

Did you know? Hanuman avatar is considered the 11th Rudra avatar of Lord Siva.

Sri Hanuman enjoys great popularity in India, and the deity also is well known in Hindu communities worldwide. In Trinidad and Tobago, Hanuman statues reach 15-, 25- and even 85-foot.