This weekend people across the United States celebrated Memorial Day. Families gathered, parades are being held, barbecues are fired up, and the laughter of children ring through the air as summer is welcomed with open arms. Others gathered and will gather at the final resting place of their loved ones to remember and honor them with wreaths and bouquets of flowers. Many people, especially the younger generations give no thought to what Memorial Day stands for or the historical origins of the holiday we now celebrate country wide.
Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) originated shortly after the Civil War when a group of freed slaves gathered at what is now Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. The area then known as the Washington Race Course had been used not only as a Union prison camp, but a mass grave for Union soldiers, and in an attempt to honor those who had died to free them these men and women gathered. They disinterred the mass grave and reburied each soldier in individual graves with respect. Afterward they erected a fence around the new graves and named the spot a Union cemetery. Ten days later the job was completed and nearly 10,000 people gathered, mainly African-American residents, to honor and celebrate these men with religious services, music, and food. Thus the first Decoration Day was celebrated on May 01, 1865.
One year later on May 05, 1866 the first known observance of Decoration Day happened in Waterloo, New York encouraged to
become a nationwide observance by General John A. Logan. Two years after the first observation in Logan’s hometown of Waterloo he used his position as as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization, to proclaim that Decoration Day be a national observation.
It was observed for the first time nationally that year on May 30, a date picked specifically because it was not attached to any known battle of the Civil War. On that day the sacrifice of the Union’s soldiers were celebrated and their graves decorated. A tradition that is still observed to this day, but now includes all soldiers that sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the United States. Despite this very few people in the Deep South celebrated the day due to the still hostile feelings towards the Union and the loss of the war. One exception to this that I was able to locate was Columbus, Mississippi who honored both the Union and Confederate soldiers who’d lost their lives during the war and were buried in the cemetery there.
Although, the first use of the name we now know was used in 1882, it did not come into common usage until after the Second World War. In 1967 Federal law finally declared the official name of the holiday as Memorial Day. One year later in June 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill which shifted three holidays from their traditional dates to a specific Monday so as to create the three day weekend. The law took affect on the Federal level in 1971 placing Memorial Day on the last Monday of May nationwide where it remains till this day.
There are certain traditions that are synonymous with the celebration of Memorial Day. Many people make pilgrimages to cemeteries and war memorials to honor those who they’ve lost whether a veteran or not. In December 2000 A National Moment of Remembrance was enacted to be observed on Memorial Day at 3 p.m. local time in the area wherever you reside.
Another tradition is the selling of red poppies to raise money for veteran’s organization. The first note in history of anyone selling red poppies was Moina Michael. In 1915, Moina inspired by the poem In Flanders Field (Full poem HERE) written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a doctor in the Canadian Army during WWI, not only wrote her own poem, but conceived the idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died during times of war. She began wearing and selling the vibrant flowers to her acquaintances and family to raise money for service men in need.
Eventually, through a series of events involving a Madam Guerin, who adopted Moina’s idea and sold artificial poppies to raise money for war orphans and widows back in France, the VFW became the first organization to sell poppies nationally in 1922.
As you can see there is a great deal of history and tradition interwoven into Memorial Day. So today when you join your family for that traditional beer and barbecue, look around at the life you live. Yes, our country has suffered a great deal economically over the past few years, but we’ve survived due in part to the connection we share with our families and friends. Life is never easy, but thanks to that bound we have and the belief that we are stronger for it we continue marching on just as those before us did.
In conclusion, share a hug with your children, kiss your lover, and send a silent thank you out to those who died to give us the life we have in a country that never gives up.