The Subtle Art of Having a Non-Cliché Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day weekend falls on the last Monday in May each year, a time when in many parts of the country the seasons are palpably transitioning towards the warmth of summer. For many of us this is the first three-day weekend since the darker days of winter, a small furlough from work and school. I still revert to my native Colombian dialect and call these weekends puentes or “bridges,” possibly ones between the impending madness of relentless work and the sanity of taking a well-timed break.

What are we observing on Memorial Day, though? As much as I’d love to lose myself in the outdoorsy vibe of the May puente, its solemn name gives us a clue that there may be reflection involved and not only celebration. Established under its present name as a national holiday in 1968, the observance originated a century earlier. Known then as Decoration Day, it was observed on May 30th as a concerted effort to memorialize the fallen soldiers of the civil war, and then, after World War I was fought, it grew to honor the lost veterans of all wars.

Mixing up Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, which is observed in November, is common. While both are now Federal holidays and focus on the women and men who serve in the military, Memorial Day is the more solemn one. Memorial Day mainly honors the fallen veterans of service, while Veteran’s Day honors everyone who gives their service to the country. It’s worth noting that many places around the country, including Arlington National Cemetery, hold patriotic ceremonies where you can pay your respects and it’s always appropriate, on either day or any day, to thank our veterans for their service.

Before you feel bad about the barbecue plans you were about to make, you should know that you don’t have to nix them to offer your respects. In 2000, Congress voted to establish a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 pm on Memorial Day Monday, to honor the dead. This solemn moment, shared across the country, is an effective and accessible way to connect our private life to the communal, to use our time off to focus on the people that gave their lives for our freedom. Contributions to foundations like A Million Thanks and other veteran organizations make it easy to give back to our veterans and their families, and these aids can be given anytime.

There are many other ways to combine the personal and the patriotic on Memorial Day weekend, and some don’t even require leaving the house. Crafting red, white and blue desserts for a backyard gathering or getting the kids to work on stars-and-stripes crafts can bring reverence to the day. You can sponsor flower deliveries through or if the weather cooperates and it’s not rainy where you live, you can visit a cemetery or other outdoor public demonstrations of respect abound in cities and smaller towns alike. Benefit and memorial concerts are often televised, bringing them right into your living room. All of these are great conversation starters with school age children who get a day off school and may ask why.

City-wide Memorial Day celebrations feature family-friendly events that require just a little advanced planning and can be a great way to enjoy the outdoors, community, gratitude and pride in our military service people. Checking parade schedules in advance can help you show up in time to secure good spots (or navigate your way around town if you need to be somewhere else and want to avoid them). Parades are a popular way to become deeply immersed in the moment of patriotism and gratitude in the great outdoors.

Taking advantage of the weather is a game time decision, but this time of year the chances are fairly good and the extra day in the weekend gives goers and throwers a good margin of error.  Since many hands make for fast work, a potluck gathering can be put together even at the last minute. A fairly common plan is to spark up someone’s grill and BYO-everything. To make the load even lighter every one of the guests, it’s a good idea to meet up at a park or a beach and put the burden on no one person to host. If your area’s public spaces are incompatible with open flame cooking, shift into picnic mode.

If public spaces include a pool or beach, go ahead and dip your toe in. You might be surprised by how willing you are to celebrate the season breaking in the local swimming hole. If the weather is too cold for a dip, check local papers and other news sources for outdoor concerts and diverse programming. The confluence of weather and heroes worth celebrating often inspires these types of gatherings in communities around the country. If you are far from any of these public displays of affection, perhaps celebrating the month of May as Bike Month is the better interpretation for you.The success of your Memorial Day weekend plans depends, to a great extent, on your flexibility.

Providing both flexibility and space for contemplation and gratitude, Memorial Day weekend’s extra day off provides an excellent time to try something new. The extra time can be conducive to sampling something that is a big time-chunk commitment, like a studio art or cooking class, and still have time leftover to veg. You could try something daring that requires build-up (like skydiving), or physical recovery time (like drinking) or both (like rock climbing). Even better and often accessible on puente weekends like Memorial Day, check out a yoga class, or take a wellness routine out for a spin. One of the biggest obstacles to establishing a good habit, like that barre class you’ve been eyeing, is how out-of-the-way inconvenient it can seem during a busy day. Using the slower pace of Memorial Day weekend to incorporate a good practice could be the perfect jump start to a new schedule, one that makes space for regular contemplation.

While there are many communal ways to participate in the observation of Memorial Day, it’s somber and introspective aspect, the same one that might make you crave a yoga class, might also have you feeling like being alone. If you’re seeking solitude, maybe a self-care day is what you require and changing your own internal vibe the best contribution you can make to those around you. Treat yourself! From an express manicure to a massage to a fancy coffee, a little indulgence at the perfect time can be therapeutic.

To reach a similar place of contentment, but on a budget, a personal contemplative practice might be a better route this year. For example, if you’re trying to save money for the swimsuit you’ve been eyeing, or the holidays, or a vacation down the road, Memorial Day weekend could be a great time for a personal challenge. Rather than giving into the marketing pressure of Memorial Day sales, you can declare a moratorium on buying anything, instead cleaning out pantry, drawers, and closets. Or if you’ve been trying to clean up your diet, take the long weekend to prep the next week’s meals and save time and money in the process. If technology is your drug of choice, try a staycation from social media or the news, leave your phone out of sight. These exercises can teach us a great about ourselves, in addition to setting down great habits.

Ideally, we are all monitoring our stress levels all the time, not only on long weekends, and for the best time managers amongst us, scheduling in self care might be part of the weekly ritual. If this is the case with you, perhaps contemplating how to help someone else is a more appropriate use of this bonus pocket of time. If you are moved to volunteer time to help, not just veterans but fellow humans or animals in need, it will contribute to the positive entropy of the world. Memorial Day weekend is a great time to engage our children in our philanthropic efforts, for example, allowing them to help us in hands on activities like assembling care packages for distribution or running a lemonade stand for a cause.  

Depending on your level of burn out, a staycation, introspection, and giving back might not be enough. Those three days strung together make Memorial Day weekend an excellent time for a vacation, even a last minute trip. For those of us able to scrounge up a Thursday evening departure, there is enough time for a quick jaunt somewhere, even last minute airfare. Websites like and feature special deals on last minute fares to both anticipated (Cancún) and unexpected (Charleston, South Carolina), as well as package deals that include hotel and car rental.

Memorial Day weekend is not exactly a slow travel time, but it also is nothing like Thanksgiving weekend or the end of year holidays, when everyone is rushing around the country to reach family. Occupying that sweet spot after the winter storms but before hurricane season, the relatively more sedate weather during the end of May makes for better travel schedules and a wider range of inviting climates to choose from. Also, since Memorial Day weekend doesn’t coincide with the eternal-seeming expanse of summer vacation, the one parents must neurotically fill with educational family trips, it is a less popular time to travel with kids, disrupting sports and school schedules more readily.

For travel during Memorial Day weekend, the least cliché choices will likely land you the best price. Last minute travel is perhaps the most spontaneous thing to do this Memorial Day weekend. To make sure you don’t break the bank, be creative and resourceful as you search for destinations that are off-the-beaten-path. Sometimes, it isn’t even about where you go but just about thinking differently. If long weekends where you live usually mean one thing to most people you know, try something different: seek cooler weather, travel to the mountains rather than the ocean, go east if they go west. In some sense this pioneering spirit is an authentic way to honor our national heroes, moving fearlessly to the beat of our own drum.

For years my family has travelled to New York on Memorial Day, though theme parks and cruises are the more popular choice in my area. What I happen to remember the most from the time I lived in New York, though, was the desperate need to get out of the City for the puente. Now that I don’t live there, there’s nothing more deliciously indulgent and uniquely introspective that to arrive with my small tribe to my sister’s house in what feels like an empty-ish metropolis, to my mind still the greatest expression of the American dream, laid out just for us.

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