Are you like me and remember stories from your parents (or grandparents) of picking flowers from their yard (especially peonies – our state flower) and taking them to decorate the graves of those family members, neighbors, and friends who gave the ultimate sacrifice to our Country on “Decoration Day”? Perhaps you even joined them in visiting cemeteries and helped place some flowers as a child. Today is the day that we set aside every year to remember the men and women who have died while in military service, especially those who died in battle or as a result of wounds. While we know the meaning of Memorial Day, do you know the history?
Our national holiday was not always called Memorial Day, nor was it always on the last Monday in May. In 1868 General John Logan called for May 30th to be set aside as a Nationwide Day of Remembrance. This was first called “Decoration Day,” in which people would go to cemeteries and put flowers on the graves of those who lost their lives in the Civil War and say prayers. He selected May 30th because it did not fall on the anniversary of any Civil War Battle; on May 30, 1868 the first national celebration took place at Arlington National Cemetery.
After World War I it was decided that all those who lost their lives in any war should be recognized. The tradition continued of people visiting cemeteries and memorials, decorating the graves of the war dead with flowers, wreaths, and flags. Volunteers would go to national cemeteries making sure all were remembered. The poppy became a symbol, because in the war torn battlefields the red field poppy was one of the first plants to grow back. Paper poppies were worn to commemorate the sacrifice of those men and women who gave their lives by fighting for our country.
From 1868 to 1970 Memorial Day was always observed on May 30th. While in the 1880’s it was called Memorial Day, it was still known to many as Decoration Day for more than a century. In 1966 Congress declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day due to a ceremony on May 5, 1866 honoring local heroes who had died in the Civil War. The state of New York was the first to designate Memorial Day as a national holiday in 1873. In the late 1960’s the official name became Memorial Day and it was one of four holidays that were changed from their traditional dates to a Monday to make a three day weekend. In 1971 Memorial Day became a National Holiday observed the last Monday in May.
While some of the traditions may not be carried out to the degree they once were, these are part of our history and past that we should never forget. As we go about our day today, take time to think about the history and meaning behind Memorial Day.