From Death to Ice Cream: Ideas for Fully Celebrating Memorial Day


My Father Writing a Letter to My Mother During WWII

My Father Writing a Letter to My Mother During WWII


           If you are like me, even if you believe deeply in the importance of family traditions and believe deeply in honoring those who died serving our country, you are a tad flummoxed by Memorial Day.

            I mean, how do you celebrate death? Especially with little kids. Memorial Day was first celebrated on May 30, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War.  Over the years, it’s become a time to remember all the warriors who sacrificed their lives for this country. Dark stuff. But it’s also become the national kickoff to summer: time to fire up the grill, hit the beach, mix the Margaritas. Our most bi-polar holiday.

            What shall we do? Weep over the red, white and blue paper tablecloth before scarfing down burgers and hot dogs?

            I’ve got another idea. I think this holiday weekend should be consciously broken apart and celebrated as two very different occasions, and that both of them would benefit from the genesis of much more personal, even quirky, rituals.

            I’m a big believer in DIY holidays, taking the broad themes and historical conventions of major occasions and marrying them to a family’s personal passions, beliefs, and personalities.

             It’s one thing to learn that flags are supposed to be flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, or that at 3 pm, during a national moment of silence, taps is supposed to be played across the country. But how do we make meaning personal in a national holiday?



             On Memorial Day, partake of the local parade with the flag-waving politicians, marching bands and uniformed veterans, but find a quiet time to talk about the veterans in your own family. Huddle over the family scrapbook or photo of someone in your family who served in the military, even if he or she didn’t die in service.  Kids love to light candles, so consider a brief ceremony to light a candle in remembrance of that person, maybe even a candle on top of a cupcake. Take the cupcake outside, and let the wind blow it out.

Visit some or all of the war memorials in your town and talk about the battles and history they commemorate, but first, gather up some flowers from your yard or the local florist. Leave the flowers at the monument, say a few words of thanks for the fallen, maybe take a photograph. With your kids, say those actual words, “Thank you for your sacrifice.”

           This is when the abstract can become vivid for everyone, not just the kids: there is something visceral and solemn about standing among the dead. With your heads bowed, observe a moment of silence and think about the real people laid here.  Touch the stones, maybe have your kids find a soldier’s tomb and make a grave rubbing. Intense, as it needs to be.

            Once you have honored the fallen in your personal way, it’s time to get zany. Just accept that this weekend, it’s OK to have diametrically opposite feelings and ceremonies on the same day and ride with it.

             In your family, what represents release? Blowing bubbles in the yard or nearby park? Squirt gun battles? Having a picnic? Going to the zoo?  Have a weekend long family challenge to see how many activities you can complete during which you feet leave the ground: climb trees, leap, take out the jump rope, shoot hoops in the driveway.


Photo from

Photo from

             Eat giant ice cream cones with red, white and blue sprinkles. Go to the beach, and after dark, create a pathway of candles leading down to the water’s edge.  If your town pool is opening this weekend, like ours is, invent your own first day traditions: jump in as a family holding hands.

            I love rituals whose goal is to get wet and messy: there’s a family in my book that celebrates the end of school every year with a huge watermelon battle in the backyard.

            Thank the freedom-fighters. Then celebrate freely, like you mean it.