For too many I fear, Memorial Day is simply the unofficial start of summer. It’s a welcomed three-day weekend and celebrated with parades, grilling, and maybe a baseball game. All of these activities sound pretty fun to me as well. Perhaps in the midst of the fun that a long weekend brings we could devote a minute or two of reflection on the meaning of Memorial Day.
It is not uncommon for the birth of a national holiday to have some uncertainties. The most important fact, however, is that presently the last Monday of May is Memorial Day. Memorial Day, not to be confused with the unofficial start of summer or when white clothing is fashionable again – the holiday rooted in the Civil War as Decoration Day.
Decorating the graves of soldiers did not originate in the 1860s. However, the practice became much more prevalent during this Civil War time. The magnitude of Civil War dead clearly indicated something of growing cultural significance was occurring. Decorating graves, ceremonies memorializing the soldiers and in 1865 creating national military cemeteries all were key actions in forming what is now Memorial Day.
General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ organization for Union Civil War veterans saw what was occurring in the South and proclaimed on May 5, 1868 Decoration Day be observed annually and throughout the nation. May 30 was chosen as the official Decoration Day. By the end of the 1860s in the North and South alike, ceremonies were widespread. By 1869, 336 ceremonies were held. Michigan led the charge of states to declare Decoration Day an official state holiday. By 1890, all northern states had followed. Ceremonies and observances were often solemn occasions for speeches and tending to the graves.
Women had a key role in the formation of the holiday through associations such as the Ladies Memorial Association, United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Women’s Relief Corp. It has been documented their efforts in both the North and the South to decorate the graves, raise funds to create monuments, and care for the cemeteries. By World War II, the name Memorial Day had become preferred. Memorial Day was declared the official name in 1967. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed by Congress in 1968. This act moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. Three other holidays were also moved to Mondays. The act became effective in 1971.
While this important US holiday began gradually and over two dozen cities lay claim to the birthplace of the holiday, honoring the dead is the true root of the observance. You may see artificial red poppies being given out or in exchange for donation in your town. Moina Michael wrote a poem in 1915 and conceived the idea to where red poppies in remembrance.
“We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.” – Moina Michael