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Celebrating Memorial Day

Celebrating Memorial Day

The great American tradition of celebrating Memorial Day has been going on for close to a century and a half. How did it all start? Read on to know about the various ways in which it is celebrated today...
CelebrationJoy Staff
The origins of this national holiday are somewhat hazy. The idiom "Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan" rings true in this case. There are many states in the United States that claim to be the place where Memorial Day originated. Each of these states has their own version regarding the beginning of the custom of celebrating the day. They also choose to add their local flavors while celebrating the day. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the nation's service.

There has been a historic tussle between the Southern and Northern states claiming origin of the day. One of the theories supporting the South is that there was a custom for women to come and decorate the graves of the fallen. There is mention of this practice in the poem published in 1867 by Nella L. Sweet called "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping." There is another version that tells the tale of a drug store owner in Waterloo, New York called Henry Welles. In 1866 during the aftermath of the bloody and arduous Civil War between the North and the South, Welles suggested that all the shops remain closed for one day to honor the soldiers who died and were buried in the Waterloo cemetery. The townspeople placed flowers, wreaths and crosses on the graves of the Northern soldiers in the cemetery. It was during this time that Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan initiated another ceremony for soldiers who survived the war. He led the veterans through town to the cemetery to decorate their comrades' graves with flags. Thus, the day was called Decoration Day.

Today it is widely believed that Gen. Logan was the progenitor of the Decoration Day concept but the basic human tendency to honor the dead would have meant that there were gatherings of people in other areas as well. Perhaps these were not well documented. Gen. Logan made the official proclamation in 1868, where he mentioned that the day was to be a day of remembrance for the departed and it was to be celebrated on the 30th of May every year. In 1882, the name was changed to Memorial Day and soldiers who had died in wars other than the Civil War were honored as well. In the northern United States, it was designated a public holiday. President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Waterloo the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966, 100 years after the first commemoration. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared it a federal holiday on the last Monday in May.

Now there is a custom where the President or Vice President of the United States gives a speech and lays a wreath on the tombs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is the nation's largest national cemetery. It is the final resting place for leaders, astronauts, explorers and other distinguished Americans. In the early hours of the Friday morning before Memorial Day, soldiers belonging to the Old Guard regiment of the Third U.S. infantry walk along the rows of headstones and place a flag near each one.

The way the day is celebrated has evolved. Initially the day brought in by children who read poems and sang civil war songs. Veterans would then come to school wearing their medals and uniforms to tell students about the Civil War. Then the veterans marched through their hometowns followed by the townspeople to the cemetery. They decorated graves and rifles were shot in the air as a salute to the northern soldiers who had given their lives to keep the United States together. Nowadays the remembrance is extended to family members who were not in the armed forces but have departed for the Elysian Fields. Church services, visits to the cemetery, flowers on graves or even silent tribute mark the day with dignity and solemnity. However there are also those who prefer to treat it as a three-day opportunity to spend at the beach, the movies or at home.

Some of the other ways that Memorial Day has been celebrated have occurred in different places. In Warrenton, Virginia, the names of 520 Confederate soldiers who died in the battles of Manassas were recognized for the first time with a granite marker engraved with their names. In Washington, Senators urge citizens to record the Memorial Day celebrations for posterity. In Los Angeles, a Navy band plays at the Los Angeles National Cemetery. In Kentucky, there was a theme of honoring women in the military.

The spirit of day is immortalized in the poem by Moina Michael

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.
President of the United States Richard Nixon
Lyndon Baines Johnson Stamp