We often forget the origin and meaning of holidays in the U.S. because we’ve become accustomed to a more contemporary definition.  When I was a child, Memorial day was the traditional beginning of summer, with barbeques, swimming pools opened and there was this “big” race on TV.  I don’t recall the true meaning of Memorial Day being taught in school, but, then again, I wasn’t the most attentive student.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and was first observed by freedmen (freed enslaved southern blacks) in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1st 1865, at the Washington Race Course, to remember and place flowers on the graves of 257 Union soldiers of the Civil War and labeled the gravesite “Martyrs of the Race Course.”  The site had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers in 1865, as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, freedmen exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them in individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of up to 10,000; mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for events that included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds, thereby creating the first Decoration Day-type celebration.

Beginning in 1866 the Southern states had their own “Memorial Days,” ranging from April 26 to mid- June. Across the South associations were founded after the War 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 tradition.

The earliest 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 “Lost 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. By 1913, however, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Lost Cause.

Three years after the first observation of the holiday, Union General John Murray, a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, New York, and General John A. Logan, who helped bring attention to the event nationwide in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” should be observed nationwide and it was observed for the first time on May 30 of that same year.  Later the same organization renamed the holiday Memorial Day.

There were events at 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 ceremonies were sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps, which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been buried in 73 national cemeteries, located mostly in the South, near the battlefields. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.

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, one closer to God. 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 the rancor was gone and the speeches praised the brave soldiers both Blue and Gray.

In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon Johnson, declared Waterloo, N.Y., the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo—which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. Facts show that while Waterloo, N.Y. may have had the greatest impact on the growth of the holiday, the true birthplace is in fact Charleston, South Carolina.

For many years the terms “Decoration Day” and “Memorial Day” were used in different states, with Decoration Day more common in the South and Memorial Day more common to the North.  After World War II the use of Memorial Day became more commonly used and on June 28, 1968 the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specific Monday in order to create a 3-day weekends.  The law changed Memorial Day from what had become the traditional date of May 30th to the last Monday in May.  Thereafter the use of the term “Decoration Day” faded into history, though a few stalwart organizations still celebrate the holiday on it’s traditional date. The first federal holiday of Memorial Day was celebrated in 1971.  After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’s change of date within a few years.

It’s important for our children to understand that Memorial Day is intended as a moment of pause to recognize those that made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their nation.  Whether they be Confederate soldiers of the South or those who laid down their life in Iraq, we stop to thank those who gave all.  Enjoy the barbeques, the Indy 500 and take a splash in the pool, but never forget that Memorial Day is a time to look back in remembrance to those who paved the way; and, more importantly, be sure you tell this to your kids so the meaning isn’t lost forever.

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