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Memorial Day

Families walk among the graves at Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan, France

Families walk among the graves at Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan, France

Memorial Day is a federal holiday observed annually in the United States on the last Monday of May. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War. By the 20th century Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars. As a marker it typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.

By the early 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as people visited the graves of their deceased relatives in church cemeteries, whether they had served in the military or not. It also became a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach, and national media events such as the Indianapolis 500 auto race, held since 1911 on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.

 

A bit of History

1) Early History

The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the U.S. Civil War. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The first known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. David W. Blight described the day:

“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

Professor Blight admitted, however, that this event in Charleston did not lead to the establishment of Memorial Day across the country.

The sheer number of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who perished in the civil war meant that burial and memorialization would take on new cultural significance. Particularly under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had already taken shape. In 1865, the federal government began a program of creating national military cemeteries for the Union dead

2) In the North

The friendship between General John Murray, a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, New York, and General John A. Logan, who helped bring attention to the event nationwide, was likely a factor in the holiday’s growth. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic – the organization for Union Civil War veterans – Logan issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” should be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle.

Events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday; Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state followed suit. The Memorial Day speech became an occasion for veterans, politicians and ministers to commemorate the War – and at first to rehash the atrocities of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation. People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s much of the rancor was gone, and the speeches praised the brave soldiers both Blue and Gray. By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world.

3) In the South

Evidence exists showing that John Logan “adopted” for the North a pre-existing annual Memorial Day custom that was already in place in the South. This separate tradition of Memorial Day observance which emerged earlier in the South was linked to the Lost Cause and served as the prototype for the national day of memory.  Across the South, associations were founded after the War, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for Confederate soldiers, organize commemorative ceremonies and sponsor impressive monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause and tradition. The most important was the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

On April 25, 1866 women in Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers at the graves of both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemetery. The early Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the day and attend to local cemeteries. Around 1890, there was a shift from this consolatory emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to public commemoration of the Confederate cause. Changes in the ceremony’s hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South.

 Flags at half-staff until noon

Half-staff US flag in Washington DC

Half-staff US flag in Washington DC

On Memorial Day the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.

The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon their memory is raised by the living, who resolves not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

Name and date

The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”, which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.

Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends 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.

Memorial Day endures as a holiday which most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer.

Traditional observance

Many people observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 pm local time. Volunteers often place American flags on each grave site at national cemeteries.

For many Americans, the central event is attending one of the thousands of parades held on Memorial Day in large and small cities all over the country. Most of these feature marching bands and an overall military theme with the National Guard and other servicemen participating along with veterans and military vehicles from various wars.

One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, an auto race which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911. It runs on the Sunday preceding the Memorial Day holiday. The Coca-Cola 600 stock car race has been held later the same day since 1961. The Memorial Tournament golf event has been held on or close to the Memorial Day weekend since 1976.

Because Memorial Day is generally associated with the start of the summer season, it is common tradition to inaugurate the outdoor cooking season on Memorial Day with a barbecue.

The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol.  Music is performed, and respect is paid to the men and women who gave their lives for their country.

Start of “summer”

 A foreteaste of summer days

A foreteaste of summer days

Most school districts that had their school year begin in late August will end school on the Friday before this day, while schools that started the school year the day after Labor Day in early September will remain in session until early June.

Across most of the central and southern continental United States, summer-like weather generally does begin reasonably close to Memorial Day time (somewhere between mid-May and early June being the norm). But in the northernmost and westernmost parts of the country, the holiday makes a far less reliable seasonal marker. In these areas, cooler and unsettled spring weather often continues into June. (In the Pacific Northwest, there is a somewhat popular expression that “real” summer begins on the 5th of July.)