When we have a three-day weekend, it’s easy to ignore the reason for the day off, but in the case of Memorial Day, we should remember why we celebrate.
The holiday started in the years immediately following the Civil War, the most destructive conflict in our country’s history. Hardly a family or community went unaffected by that terrible war. Two of my ancestors fought for the Union. One was wounded at Gettysburg, the other at the Battle of the Wilderness. The latter lived into his 80’s with a bullet lodged in one knee.
His rifle stayed in the family and was eventually passed down to me. I display it proudly in my family room.
As early as 1866, people gathered flowers in spring to decorate the graves of the fallen. For decades the holiday was knows as Decoration Day, but after World War II, Memorial Day stuck. In 1866, President Johnson declared the town of Waterloo, New York to be the beginning of the Memorial Day holiday, but other cities make competing claims.
In the South, states set aside alternate dates to honor the Confederate dead. It wasn’t until after World War I that all states began celebrating on the same day, May 30, and people began honoring the dead of all American wars, not just the Civil War.
In 1968 Congress passed the law that created three-day weekends, and since then Memorial Day has been celebrated on the last Monday in May. This year the last Monday happens to be May 31st.
Ceremonies take place at veteran’s cemeteries across the nation, including the big event at Arlington National Cemetery, which I visited in April 2019. The trees were in bloom, and the cemetery was lovely and peaceful.
History.com has an interesting article about Memorial Day, including a video showing the ceremony in 1936 presided over by FDR and with prescient remarks from General John Pershing that foreshadowed WWII.
Have fun, but don’t forget why we celebrate.