Celebration – Memorial Day

vintage-eagle-american-flag-graveMemorial Day will be celebrated this year on May 27, for most people in the United States that means a three day weekend and it is the unofficial start to summer.  Memorial Day is a holiday that is celebrated every year on the last Monday of May.  It is a day that Americans remember the brave men and women who died while serving in the United States military.  (Veterans Day is sometimes confused with Memorial Day, Memorial Day observes those who died while serving and Veterans Day celebrated the service of all U.S. military veterans either living or dead.

During the Civil War the vast numbers of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, meant that the burial and cemetery sites would greatly impact the country’s cultural rituals.  Women, wives and mothers, began a formal practice of decorating the graves with flowers to honor the dead soldiers.  Originally known as Decoration Day, this special day started after the end of the Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died.  After the Civil War there were several memorial events both in the North and South, numerous cities and states claim to be the first to start the annual tradition.

In the North, the organization of Union Civil War veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation that a Decoration Day should annually be observed nationwide.  In the South, the growing organization of the United Daughters of the Confederacy were very successful raising funds to build Confederate monuments and lobbying Congress for reburial of Confederate dead.  In 1865, the federal government began a program to creating national military cemeteries.  The two most famous national cemeteries are Arlington National Cemetery located across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg National Cemetery located in Pennsylvania near the Civil War’s bloodiest and most famous battle.

Originally, May 30 was chosen as the date for a Decoration Day for the specific reason that there was no Civil War battle on that particular day and it would also be the optimal time for the most flowers to be in bloom.  Across the country, both in the North and South, cemeteries were decorated with flowers on the graves and speeches were made by veterans and politicians to honor and commemorate those who fought so bravely.

Gradually the name of the holiday changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day but it was not declared the official name until a Federal law passed in 1967.  Then in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which changed four different holidays from their traditional dated to a specified Monday in order to create a three-day weekend and by 1971 the federal law was in effect nationally.  Memorial Day was one changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May.  Currently, instead of flowers American flags are placed on the graves of the soldiers buried in our national military cemeteries and the day is meant to honor all the American soldiers who have died in both domestic and foreign wars.

Memorial Day trivia

  • On Memorial Day, traditionally in a solemn manner, the flag of the United Sates is raised quickly to the top of the flagpole and then slowly lowered to the half-staff position and remains there only until noon.  At noon, the flag is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.  The symbolism is that the half-mast position is meant to remember the men and women who gave their lives in the service of our country and at noon the flag is raised as a way to remember that their lives and the sacrifices they made would not be in vain and we as Americans should remain steadfast in our constitutional right of liberty and justice for all.
  • One of the longest-standing traditions held on Memorial Day is the running of the Indianapolis 500 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The auto race, which has been held since 1911, runs on the Sunday preceding the Memorial Day holiday.
  • Red Poppies are the official Memorial Day flower.  Inspired by the poem “In Flanders Felds”, in 1915 Moina Michael wrote her own poem in response.  It reads, “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.”  She came up with the idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day to honor those who died serving the nation during war.  She then sold red poppies with the money going to benefit the servicemen in need during World War II.
  • Since the late 1950s, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, over a thousand soldiers from the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 graves at the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. and continue to patrol the site for 24 hours each day during the three day weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.