For many Americans, the end of May means the beginning of summertime activities; barbecues, vacation, and general fun in the sun. The last Monday of May, which for many of us means a three day weekend, is actually a day of remembrance with traditions dating back to ancient cultures. On Memorial Day we remember the lives, service and sacrifice of American soldiers who died while serving our Nation.
Originally known as Decoration Day, the origins of Memorial Day can be traced back to end of the Civil War in May 1865 when cities in the North and South honored fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers. The tradition of decorating and honoring the graves of soldiers dates back to ancient cultures and is a way for the living to remember those they lost and to honor their sacrifice. The immense casualties of the Civil War, on both Union and Confederate sides, left over 600,000 grave sites. Decorating and honoring the graves of soldiers took on new significance for a nation trying to heal from a war of division. One of the first well known observances was in Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866 when a group of women visited a local cemetery in order to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers. Before leaving, they also left flowers on the bare graves of Union soldiers. Local observances occurred throughout the North and South in the late 1860’s, but on May 5th, 1868, The Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, established Decoration Day as an official day of remembrance for fallen soldiers. In his official Memorial Day Order, General John A. Logan declared May 30th as Decoration Day, stating that the graves of soldiers should be decorated with “the choicest flowers of springtime.” By this time, multiple cities across the nation observed their own Decoration Days on different dates, but it is believed that May 30th was chosen to always ensure the availability of fresh flowers.
While cities throughout the North and South claim to have held the first Decoration Day, the official birthplace, as recognized by Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, is Waterloo, New York. On May 5, 1866 the City of Waterloo honored fallen soldiers by closing businesses, flying flags at half-staff and decorating graves with fresh flowers. Although there are some questions as to the authenticity behind this claim, these traditions have been carried through to modern day celebrations and Waterloo is still recognized as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Following World War I, Decoration Day was expanded to include remembrance of all fallen American soldiers. It wasn’t until after World War II that Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day, becoming official by Federal law in 1967. On June 28, 1967 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving the date of Memorial day to the last Monday of May and creating a three day weekend.
Today, we celebrate Memorial Day with a combination of old and new traditions. Fresh flowers are still laid on graves, as well as miniature flags. Many cities hold parades to honor their fallen soldiers and current military members and veterans. Celebrities, veterans and military musicians gather on the west lawn of the United States Capitol for The National Memorial Day Concert, which is broadcast on NPR and PBS. Even if you can’t attend a parade or catch the concert, we can all observe the National Moment of Remembrance, when at 3 p.m., local time, all Americans are asked to take a moment of remembrance and respect. The flag on Memorial Day is always flown at half-staff until noon, to honor fallen soldiers and then raised to full-staff for the rest of the day in honor of our living veterans.
As the three day weekend approaches, it is important to remember that Memorial Day is more than just a day off from school, work and an excuse to break out the barbecue. Our country has a long tradition of remembering and honoring soldiers and there are many ways we can continue to do so. By honoring our fallen soldiers, through old and new traditions, we remind ourselves of their sacrifice and the cost of a free and united nation.