Ready, set, relax: Memorial Day starts the clock on summer


Jason Covino, of the District, soaks up some some with a catnap on a hay bale at Hill Country BBQ on May, 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Hello! It is summer!

Or, “summer.” De facto summer. Summer-esque. Today is the collectively accepted starting point for the summer season in the United States of America. Or, it has been since 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which is what turned Memorial Day and Labor Day into three-day weekends and thereby created natural bookends for the season (Bookends made of . . . picnic pickle relish? Waterlogged beach lit?).

Summer: We had to invent it, slathering legislation and meaning like sunscreen across a three-month block of time. Following the astronomical calendar, summer wouldn’t officially begin until June 21. Living in Canada, it would have started a week ago, on Victoria Day, the Canadian equivalent of Memorial Day.

Conventional knowledge says that summers were a product of the pioneer school calendar, back when farm kids already had June and July off to help with harvesting. That’s not exactly true. In the early 19th century, farm kids were actually more likely to attend school in the summer, and have off spring and fall. Following agrarian rhythms, our grand national vacation should happen between September and November, or March and May. It was the urban school children who were likely to take breaks in July or August, when wealthier families would desert the city for cooler climates. (In urban areas, school ran almost year-round, but as attendance wasn’t compulsory, students dropped in and out).

It wasn’t until education became standardized in the mid-19th century that we invented the firm school year, and summer as a byproduct, says Kenneth Gold, a professor of education at the College of Staten Island. “There was a whole medical theory that [people would get sick] from too much schooling and teaching,” Gold said. The standardization of education led to the “summer leisure economy” as families were encouraged to go outside, be leisurely, recreate.

We had to invent things like Vacation Bible School (1894) or Popsicles (1905) or the other things that summer would come to stand for. We had to invent block parties, ice cream trucks, summer camp and movies about summer camp.

Kicking off this season with Memorial Day — with barbecues and parades and Gary Sinise down on the Mall — gives it a sense of anticipation. A sense of good things to come. Warm weather meets ambition meets stockpiled vacation time. Optimism.

Summer has become, as much as New Year’s, a time of resolution: We’ll finally go to the Hirshhorn, we’ll make our own gelato, we’ll learn to like jazz and see it in the Sculpture Garden. We’ll reinvent ourselves, this invented summer. We’ll buy espadrilles.

But just as often, summer is the vehicle for our own lethargy, the season that most attunes us to life passing by. A collection of outdoor movies we don’t go to and July 4 fireworks we don’t see because the view from our rooftop isn’t as good as we thought it would be. Summers are the four half-empty mosquito repellent bottles under our bathroom vanity, because each June, we can’t remember whether we’re out. Instead of outdoor film festivals, we’re huddled in the dollar theater, watching “Iron Man 3,” again.

Memorial Day is when it still stretches ahead of you, when the invention is still a dream, a stream of coming attractions. When summer is perfect, and hasn’t even happened yet.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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