The History of Memorial Day

As May begins to wind down and temperatures outside start to heat up, people begin to put away their winter clothes and break out their barbeque grills in preparation for Memorial Day weekend. While traditionally associated with the start of summer these days, however, Memorial Day has a rich history behind it that is both steeped in nationalism and tinged with controversy. Discover the original intent behind the holiday, and maybe you’ll find that you want to celebrate a little differently this year.

While no one can quite agree when the tradition of Memorial Day got started, Time.com places its origins in 1865 in Charleston, SC. At Planters’ Race Course, a former racing arena that was used as a Confederate prison during the Civil War, a group of ex-slaves went to work digging up a mass grave of over 250 Union soldiers, properly interring them, and giving them individual graves. Then on May 1st of that year, over 10,000 people gathered in that spot to lay roses on the graves, sing spirituals, and recite scripture. This could be remembered as the first Memorial Day. History.com, on the other hand, notes that according to the federal government, Waterloo, NY is considered the official “birthplace” of Memorial Day as it hosted an annual community event honoring fallen soldiers for several years before the holiday’s declaration.

Informal celebrations continued over the next few years, but it wasn’t until 1868 that a formal holiday was proclaimed. May 30th of that year was dubbed “Decoration Day” and intended as a day to celebrate fallen soldiers from the Civil War by decorating their graves with flowers and other adornments. General James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington Cemetery and observers decorated over 20,000 graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.

At first, the ties to the Union made several Southern states refuse to celebrate the holiday, but after World War I, it was extended to observe fallen American soldiers from all the country’s wars. At this point it was renamed Memorial Day. In 1971, Congress set Memorial Day as the last Monday in the month of May, changing it from the fixed date of May 30th. The move had its opponents who claimed that setting up the holiday as part of a three-day weekend makes people less likely to remember it for its actual meaning.

In 1915, the tradition of wearing a red poppy in celebration of the holiday was begun by Moina Michael after she read John McCrae’s World War I poem “On Flanders Fields.” According to USMemorialDay.org, Michael was inspired by the poem and sold silk poppies to her family and friends with the profits going to support veterans in need. After the American Legion adopted the tradition in 1921, it has since spread worldwide.

Today, the origins of Memorial Day are largely forgotten by the majority of the American public. At Arlington National Cemetery, however, the traditions are kept very much alive. Individual American flags are placed on each of the more than 250,000 graves there each year. The president and vice president also give speeches at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At 3:00pm local time all over the country, Americans are encouraged to observe a moment of silence in honor of the nation’s fallen heroes.

So this Memorial Day, in between opening up the swimming pool and eating your barbecued hot dog, take a moment to remember the meaning behind the holiday. From its roots in the wake of the Civil War through today, Memorial Day is one of America’s most meaningful national holidays.

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