The Unofficial Start of Summer
Today is Memorial Day in the US. For many of us, the holiday marks the unofficial start to summer. It’s become a time for backyard BBQs, parades, and a big ‘ol serving of Americana. Unfortunately, sometimes lost in planning out our three-day-weekends is the real reason we celebrate the day.
Why do we celebrate Memorial Day? Here is a quick look back at the history of this solemn holiday.
Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day?
Memorial Day has its origins in the American Civil War. When the war ended in the Spring of 1865, hundreds of thousands of soldiers had lost their lives. To remember and honor these fallen soldiers, Americans in various cities and towns began holding springtime tributes. Residents would visit their local cemeteries to recite prayers and to decorate Union and Confederate graves with flowers.
The act of decorating graves with flowers goes back to ancient times, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this custom began following the Civil War. It seems that many communities independently initiated Civil War memorial gatherings. While many towns claim to be the first, Waterloo, New York, is generally recognized as the birthplace of this tradition (you can thank the Federal Government for that). For Waterloo’s inaugural celebration on May 5, 1866, businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
All these independent memorial celebrations led General John A. Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, to propose a more organized observance. On May 5, 1868, in his General Order No. 11, he called for a nationwide day of remembrance to occur on May 30th. He chose that date because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle in particular.
On the very first Decoration Day, James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. 5,000 people participated, decorating the graves of the 20,000 soldiers buried there.
The memorial lived on in many Northern states following that initial observance, and by 1890, many had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.
Memorial Day is Born
Over time, Decoration Day came to be known as Memorial Day. After World War I, the holiday itself went through a change. Instead of just remembering those who died in the Civil War, the day came to be a recognition of all American military personnel who died in all wars.
People continued to celebrate Memorial Day on May 30th until 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Memorial Day was established as a federal holiday to be observed on the last Monday of May. The change went into effect in 1971.
Memorial Day Today
There are various traditions associated with Memorial Day today. People continue to place flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers, and it remains a day for people to reflect on the sacrifices made by others. There are also numerous parades held in cities and towns across America, many which feature military themes.
While the holiday itself was meant to be a solemn remembrance, there is no denying that Memorial Day has also come to be marked by shopping sales, sports, vacations and lighthearted fun, and we think that’s okay. There is no shame in using the holiday to partake in all the activities that make America great.
If you do get a chance though, perhaps take some time to reflect on those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice protecting your freedom. After all, that is what the holiday is supposed to be all about.
We’ll leave you with a poem often associated with Memorial Day.
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.
-John McCrae (1915)
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.