DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a veteran with 23 years of service, and I'm uncomfortable with the traditional "Happy Memorial Day" greeting that the news and entertainment media have foisted upon the public. However, I do not know what is actually acceptable to use in its place. Are there better forms of greetings for more somber occasions?
GENTLE READER: While it is true that such constructions are used as greetings, you will notice that they are actually good wishes. So Miss Manners agrees that they seem jarring on somber occasions.
For example, one would not wish anyone a happy Yom Kippur; the proper wish is for an easy fast. But in common with "Merry Christmas," that is a kindly hope on behalf of another -- comfort in the former case, and enjoyment in the latter.
How would you wish people to feel on Memorial Day? Respectful, presumably, and perhaps contemplative. But to instruct them to do so would be impertinent. You wouldn't be wishing them well, but ordering them to behave properly, which is not only rudely intrusive but insulting, as it implies that they are not already doing so.
So the only passably fitting use of "Happy Memorial Day" would be to encourage shopkeepers who use it to advertise sales.
Two cautionary notes:
(1) It is unnecessary, and sometimes unwise, to issue holiday-specific wishes to people whose circumstances you do not know. People who do this mean to spread cheer, but that is not the result of, for example, calling out "Happy Father's Day!" to someone whose child is deceased.
(2) Nevertheless, it is also a mistake to take conventional expressions at their surface value. Miss Manners supported you on the Memorial Day matter, but please do not press her about every such remark. It is really tedious when people complain that everyone who says "How do you do?" doesn't want a medical report, and those who begin letters with "Dear" do not hold them particularly dear.