Even though many of us may not have a family member that lost their life while serving in the military, we all have that sense of gratitude that so many heroes gave their lives for this country. That is the most unselfish act that anyone could do for the rest of us to live and grow our families and have the freedom to do so. We get to celebrate all sorts of things all the time, this day we celebrate their lives and the ultimate sacrifice they made.
Yes, getting together with family and friends for Memorial Day weekend is a lot of fun and many communities have parades and ceremonies honoring our fallen heroes but alas most of us have backyard barbeques with good ‘ole hamburgers and hot dogs being the food of choice, flying the American flag and wearing our patriotic red, white and blue. The weather is generally nice this time of year—no more snow and really cold nights and schools are letting out marking the beginning of summer. This holiday goes back to the 1860s and was originally called Decoration Day. Following the Civil War (the most costly of our wars in terms of lives lost) national cemeteries were established. Communities had memorial gatherings with prayer and decorated the graves of the fallen soldiers with flowers and flags.
May 5, 1866, is said to be Waterloo, New York’s, first community-celebrated Memorial Day where businesses were closed and the graves of the fallen were decorated, and was so chosen by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 to have been the first community to celebrate Memorial Day. However, records show that a group of formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina may have started celebrating shortly after the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865. Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claims their observances dated back to October 1864 but many other communities claim to have been doing the same. On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan (Northern Civil War veterans) called for a nationwide day of remembrance and he chose May 30, 1868, to be designated as Decoration Day as this date was not associated with any battles and, of some note, this time of year flowers are in bloom for use in decorating the graves with the ‘choicest flowers of springtime.’ On the first Decoration Day General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and 5,000 people attending decorated the graves of 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there. The Northern states continued to honor fallen military personnel on this date; however, the Southern states commemorated those heroes on different days at least until World War I.
The United States having been involved in several wars in the 20th century, Decoration Day eventually became known as Memorial Day to commemorate all fallen Americans in all the wars, not just the Civil War. In 1968, the date of the observance was changed to the last Monday in May in order to give federal employees a three-day weekend. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed and the change went into effect in 1971 which also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. Today, a wreath is placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and each grave is decorated with a small American flag. On Memorial Day, protocols for the flag is to quickly raise it at sunrise, immediately lowering it to half-staff until noon, and then displaying the flag at full staff from noon until sunset.
So there you have a short history of Memorial Day formerly Decoration Day. I hope everyone enjoys this day but please do not forget to stop and think about where we would be today if not for every life given so our beautiful country continues to be strong, unique and free.
I found the historical dates and details online at history.com (posted in 2009 and recently updated) and the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, along with the Library of Congress.