Monday, May 31, 2010
The exact origins of Memorial Day are not exactly agreed upon. Many cities claim to be the founders of this holiday. The tradition, however, dates back to Civil War times. At one time Memorial day was known as Decoration Day, as it was the day families and friends of fallen Civil War soldiers would choose place flowers and "decorate" the graves.
The first official Memorial Day was May 30th 1868, after the day was declared by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (a veterans' organization). The holiday was adopted by Michigan and New York and then by all the Northern states through the late 1800's. The Southern states had there own days they observed and did not recognize this holiday until after WWI (several Southern states still have a separate Memorial Day type holiday to honor confederate soldiers). Apparently the date, May 30th was chosen as it was not the anniversary of any battle.
At first the holiday was just to honor the Civil War dead. After WWI, Memorial Day changed to honoring all of Americans who died fighting in any war. Now it is often seen as a day to remember all who have died. (I remember going to the cemetery to decorate the graves of family members on Memorial Day when I was young.) In 1967, the name of the holiday was officially changed to "Memorial Day" and in 1971 the National Holiday Act changed the date of the holiday to the last Monday in May, creating a very convenient 3-day weekend. There has been for several years a push to move Memorial Day back to May 30th in order to try to give some meaning back to the day (so it's not just the long weekend when the pools open).
The top photo is from Arlington National Cemetery. Every year around Memorial Day, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment or The Old Guard, in a tradition called "Flags In", places small flags in front of all graves in the cemetery.
The Fredericksburg National Cemetary hosts an annual Luminaria each year for Memorial Day. Approximately 15,300 candles are placed by volunteers on each of the graves (80% of which are unknown soldiers).
I have often wondered about the significance of the red flowers being given out for donations around this time every year. Inspired by the poem, "In Flanders Fields" (poem below) by Canadian WWI veteran and poet John McCrae, the Veterans of Foreign Wars take donations for their "Buddy" Poppy every year around Memorial Day. Theses poppies are assembled by disabled and needy veterans. Since 1922 this program has been raising money for veterans and their families through the poppies.
- In Flanders Fields
- In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
- Between the crosses, row on row,
- That mark our place; and in the sky
- The larks, still bravely singing, fly
- Scarce heard amid the guns below...
- We are the Dead. Short days ago
- We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
- Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
- In Flanders fields...
- Take up our quarrel with the foe:
- To you from failing hands, we throw
- The torch; be yours to hold it high.
- If ye break faith with us who die
- We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
- In Flanders fields...