Today is Memorial Day! It’s the unofficial kick-off of the summer season. There are parades, family barbecues and the end of another school year. I hope you have fun plans for the day and your weather is beautiful wherever you are. Before we begin the day’s festivities let’s take a look at the background of summer’s first holiday.
Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War. Known as Decoration Day then, many Southern families decorated the graves of their war dead even before the Civil War was over. This tradition spread northward and by the latter part of the 1860s many towns across the country were holding tributes to honor their fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers, singing and praying.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, (GAR) a group for northern Civil War veterans, called for a single national day of remembrance. Flowers were to be placed on both Confederate and Union dead at Arlington National Cemetery. The date selected was May 30, 1868. That day was chosen since it was not the date of any particular battle.
That first “official” Decoration Day held at Arlington National Cemetery did honor 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Their graves were decorated and a speech was made by then General James Garfield.
This type of commemoration became a tradition and states held yearly Decoration Day ceremonies until eventually being recognized as a state holiday in most northern states. Southern states didn’t necessarily choose to honor their dead on May 30th and chose different, significant days to honor their Civil War dead.
It was after World War I when our nation had experienced yet another generation of war dead that the day came to honor all who had given the ultimate sacrifice in all wars.
During the 20th century the name Decoration Day gave way to Memorial Day and the significance of the day slowly diminished. In 1971 Congress passed the law that the holiday would be celebrated on the last Monday in May, instead of on the 30th. This enabled all of us to enjoy a three-day weekend.
So today as you enjoy a parade, family gathering or church picnic I hope you’ll remember the roots of Memorial Day. Please take a moment to honor those who died serving our country and protecting our freedoms.