Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, traditionally marks the beginning of summer. But the true meaning of the holiday is much more than that.
Memorial Day dates back to the Civil War and began as a way to remember and honor both Union and Confederate soldiers who were killed in battle. Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. On that day, at Arlington National Cemetery, Logan declared in General Order No. 11:
The 30th of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion…
We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders…
Let no vandalism of avarice of neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic…
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor…
After WWI, Memorial Day was extended to honor Americans who died in all wars. Today many Americans use this holiday to decorate all graves, whether the deceased served in the military or not.
Memorial Day was declared a US federal holiday in 1971 and is now observed on the last Monday in May.
In December 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed. This asks all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to Taps at 3:00 local time.”
Many towns in our area will have a Memorial Day parade and a ceremony at a local cemetery. The ceremonies are usually conducted by the local American Legion or VFW, who also mark all veterans’ graves with an American flag.
Proper American flag etiquette should be observed this weekend. The American flag should be flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day and then raised to full-staff. During a parade there may be several participants with a flag and it is appropriate to salute only the first flag as it passes by. As the first flag passes everyone should show respect by standing at attention with their right hand over their heart. Those in uniform should give their appropriate formal salute.
The red poppy is also associated with Memorial Day and has been for nearly 100 years. Since 1922 VFW members and American Legion Auxiliary volunteers have distributed red poppies on Memorial Day weekend in exchange for a contribution to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans. This tradition originated with Moina Michael in 1915. She was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” and came up with the idea to wear a red poppy on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving our nation during war. She sold poppies to her friends and co-workers and the money went to needy service men. By 1922 the VFW had taken on the project. You can read more about this tradition at The WWI Origins of the Poppy as a Remembrance Symbol.
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.
—Moina Michael, 1915.