History of Memorial Day

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Source: sxc.hu Photo: bluedaisy

Last Monday in May is Memorial Day in the United States. This is a day when banks are closed and many Americans get a paid holiday. Memorial Day weekend is now a great time for families to get together, travel, fire up the barbecue or maybe just finish up the spring cleaning. Many of us vaguely understand that Memorial Day is meant to honor the dead, but, for the most part, we have forgotten its origins. Indeed, fewer towns and cities each year hold official services and parades in an effort to remember the the valor of our military dead. So, here is a brief overview of Memorial Day:

What is Memorial Day

There is no one place where Memorial Day originated. There are dozens of towns and cities that claim to be the first to celebrate Memorial Day. In the wake of the Civil War, many different towns had services to decorate the graves of the dead, and remember the fallen. A song published in 1867 makes reference to women’s groups in the South who decorated Confederate graves. On May 5 1868, General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued General Order No. 11, and made an official military declaration for Memorial Day. The first official observance of placing decoration on graves at Arlington National Cemetery (Union and Confederate soldiers) was May 30, 1868.

However, Memorial Day was not recognized as an official holiday by any state until 1873, when the state of New York made a recognition. This might have been one of the reasons that President Lyndon Johnson, in 1966, designated Waterloo, New York as the official “birthplace” of Memorial Day. At any rate, all the Northern states recognized Memorial Day by 1890. Southern states refused to join in, since Memorial Day was originally meant to recognize the Civil War dead. Instead, those in the South held their own memorial services for Confederate dead. After World War I, though, Memorial Day became a day to honor all of those who died in any war, and the South began participating. (Although many Southern states still have additional special days to commemorate Confederate soldiers.)

Wearing Red Poppies on Memorial Day

One of the traditions of Memorial Day that many may not remember is the wearing of red poppies. This tradition started in the 1920s, originally as a way for raise money for war orphans and widows. It was started by a poetess who, inspired by the famous “In Flanders Field” who wrote of “the Poppy red/That grows on fields where valor led…” The VFW has been selling poppies for Memorial Day since then as well. Some of these poppies are paper, and made by disabled veterans. If you are out and about this Memorial Day, I might suggest making sure you have a few dollar bills on your person so that you can buy a poppy or two if a veteran offers to sell you one, as still happens in my little corner of the world.

Memorial Day Observances Today

Many towns no longer even have parades in honor of Memorial Day; for many it is a day to stay home from work and barbeque with the family. Many decorate graves of any dead, forgetting that originally Memorial Day was meant to honor fallen soldiers. However, the military is still quite faithful in its observance. In the late 1950s, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Division began placing miniature American flags at each of the gravesites at Arlington. They do this the Thursday before Memorial Day, and then mount a 24 hour patrol to ensure that none of the flags are removed, or fall over.

Other civic groups, such as the Scouts, place flags in other military cemeteries and offer other services. Many people fly their flags outside their homes on Memorial Day, in order to show their gratitude for the soldiers who have given their lives.

In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance resolution, designed to encourage us to think of our military dead. At 3 p.m. local time, we are encouraged to take a moment to reflect, or to listen to Taps, stopping what we are doing in a conscious effort to remember out honored military dead. So, if you are having a family picnic, watching a ball game, or enjoying your day off in some other way, take a few minutes to stop and remember — and maybe find some way to express your gratitude.

More information, and references for this article

Memorial Day History at www.usmemorialday.org

“Memorial Day” at Wikipedia

Memorial Day History from the Department of Veterans Affairs

“Celebrate Memorial Day” at About.com Homeschooling

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