Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day: In Origin and Practice


Memorial Day in the U.S. is a federal holiday, formerly known as "Decoration Day" a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. We set out flags and flowers, we visit cemeteries, and we remember all of those who served our country.

The first memorial day was observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at a race track in Charleston, South Carolina. The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who had died while captive. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing and a picnic.

The origins of Memorial Day most likely lie with General John A Logan, a northerner of the Union Army, who was so impressed by the way that the South honored their fallen soldiers that he decided the northern states needed a similar day. Reportedly, Logan said that it was most fitting, since the Greeks, had honored their heroes with laurel and flowers, that the grave of every soldier in this land be decorated on a special day and, if he could, he would have made it a holiday.On May 5, 1868 in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' organization, Logan issued a proclamation that "Decoration Day" be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year.

Due to lingering hostility after the Civil War, many southern states did not recognize Memorial Day until after World War I although the name Memorial Day" was first used in 1882.Given its origins in the American Civil War, Memorial Day is not a holiday outside the United States. Countries of the Commonwealth, as well as France and Belgium, honor members of the military who died in war on or around Remembrance Day(November 11.) The United States uses that date as Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day) and honors all veterans, living and dead.

Memorial Day is currently a national holiday celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May. A law passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act, P.L. 90, 363, in 1971 to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays. In 1915, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," Moina Michael replied with her own poem:

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 then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Moina Michael and when she returned to France, made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women.

This tradition spread to other countries. In 1921, the Franco-American Children's League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans' organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their "Buddy" Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans.

In 1948 the US Post Office honored Moina Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it. Since the late 1950's, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.

Today, many Americans use Memorial Day weekend to also honor family members who have passed away. Church services on the Sunday prior to Memorial Day may include a reading of the names of members who have died during the previous 12 months. The southeastern United States continues to celebrate Decoration Day as a day to decorate the graves of all family members, and it is not reserved for those who served in the military and this is usually celebrated the week before the official Memorial Day Weekend.

This year, my husband and his brother continued their yearly tradition of bringing my mother-in-law to visit the cemeteries where her veteran son is laid to rest, having died of cancer 22 years ago at the age of 53, as well as the others she has loved in this lifetime.They visited cemeteries in three cities...Stayton, Albany and a small pioneer cemetery, named after my husband's family, near Scio. All of this, in spite of the fact that my MIL was wheelchair bound. We all cut flowers and flowering branches for her to place on the graves, a lifelong tradition in our family.

Whether we celebrate Memorial Day, Decoration Day, or just a day of remembrance....I simply remember the loss of all who have died in service to our country and thank them .....for all of their places in history, and for all of their places in our own lives.

shown:
A display for our Salem Community Quilters that I had made showcasing some of our quilts, including several of my own Patriotic Heartstrings quilts.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up in New England where we always observed Decoration day as a tradition like you describe with flowers and flowering branches, this was irrespective of military service. Being in Savannah this year we were reminded of the solemnity of the occasion as we wandered centuries old cemetaries as well as visited the battlefield that saw the bloodiest hour of the American Revolution in October of 1779.

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Michele Bilyeu blogs "With Heart and Hands" as she journeys between Douglas, Alaska and Salem, Oregon.