Memorial Day reminds most people of parades, of summer, of long weekends, of barbecues and picnics. But this annual holiday, which falls on the last Monday of May, has been named Memorial Day because it is firstly a day of commemoration. Of who exactly? All the brave men and women who perished in service of this nation.
A look back
It all started in 1866, just after the Civil War claimed the lives of so many soldiers. Those who survived brought home with them stories of heroism. And those stories in turn inspired Henry Welles, a drugstore owner, to ask all shops in the town of Waterloo, New York, to close on May 5 in honor of the soldiers who passed on. So on the morning of that day, the townspeople visited the graves of Northern soldiers in the Waterloo cemetery to place wreaths, flowers and crosses.
Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan, head of an organization of Union veterans, gathered surviving soldiers in a separate but similar memorial. The veterans trooped to the cemetery where their comrades were buried and decorated the tombs with flags. That day came to be known among townspeople as Decoration Day.
By 1868, the ceremonies originally led by Welles and Logan were merged. As Logan proclaimed in a general order, “The 30th of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country…”
A formal holiday
After World War I, in 1882, Decoration Day had a new name: Memorial Day. It also started commemorating soldiers who lost their lives in all U.S. wars, not just the Civil War.
At around that time, Memorial Day was declared a public holiday in the northern states. Southern states, initially reluctant about embracing Decoration Day, became more open to the observance. (Still, certain southern states honor their fallen war heroes on a different day: June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee and May 10 in North and South Carolina).
In 1971, Memorial Day was officially designated a federal holiday by President Richard Nixon.
An annual tradition
Since then, cities across the United States have been observing Memorial Day in different ways. But there are annual traditions that stand out and are anticipated each year.
The most popular tradition takes place in the nation’s largest cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The highlights include the President or Vice President giving a speech and laying a wreath on the graves and a rifle salute in the air by members of the armed forces. Of course, you’ll also see veterans and families saying prayers as they place wreaths on the tombs of their comrades or relatives. And you might notice that the U.S. flag is flown at half-staff until noon.
Just a few years ago, another tradition was born thanks to the National Monument of Remembrance Act. Under this act, when the clock strikes 3 in the afternoon of Memorial Day, Americans are to pause for one minute to reflect on those who have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.
Townspeople in Waterloo, the birthplace of Memorial Day, carry on the tradition that they began. They walk to cemeteries and place flags and flowers on the graves. Then they gather at a park in the middle of town, where the Gettysburg address and Retired Major General Logan’s Order #11 are recited and patriotic songs are heard. At evening, schoolchildren march in a parade.
Whether you decide to join a parade, go to monuments, visit departed love ones, take a vacation, watch a movie or relax at home on Memorial Day, remember that today’s freedoms and values, and the nation’s very existence, were made possible by soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors who gave their lives for the love of country. In the words of Francis A. Walker, “We come, not to mourn our dead soldiers but to praise them.” That much they deserve.
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