May 24th, 2013
Memorial Day is almost like the starting flag for barbecues and picnics. But there is the serious side of the holiday where we honor those who have died in the line of service to their country.
Memorial Day was originally named Decoration Day and was started after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.
Many volunteers visit cemeteries and place American flags on the graves of those who died during military service.
Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountains. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with kinfolk and others. There often is a religious service and a “dinner on the ground,” the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the “memorial day” idea.
The first Memorial Day started in Charleston by freed slaves to honor prisoners of war who had died (also from Wikipedia):
During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, blacks in Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen had cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead.
It’s unknown if this was the true starting point for creating a nationwide Memorial Day. The Northerner’s credit Waterloo, New York with having the first Memorial Day on May 5, 1866.
Most ceremonies begin with the American flag being raised to the top of the flagpole, and then lowered to halfmast until noon, and then raised again to the top for the remainder of the day.
The ceremonies also include speeches, usually from community leaders and veterans. And many communities will have parades.
There is a custom of wearing red poppies to honor the fallen.
There actually is a National Memorial Day concert. It is held on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol building. The official time for Memorial Day is 3pm Eastern Standard Time, which seems odd since we’re now on Daylight Savings Time.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars is trying to get the holiday changed back to a fixed date. In 2002, the VFW issued this statement: “Changing the date merely to create a three-day weekend has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
Do you think that’s a good idea? Or is it better to have the long weekend to make it easier for the cemeteries?