Memorial day marks a very important day in the United States and is observed to honor the soldiers who laid down their lives while in service of the US military. Originally known as 'Decoration Day', the day is observed every year on the last Monday of May and unofficially marks the beginning of summer. Memorial day is a federal holiday that was first enacted to honor the lives of the soldiers of the Civil War but was later extended to include all the soldiers who died while in service of the US army.
This day has now come to be a day of remembrance for all American citizens in memory of those who have died. It is no longer limited to remembering soldiers who served America. The day has several traditions that are observed in its honor.
A Brief History
In 1865, the United States of America was recovering from the long and bloody Civil War, which was estimated to have claimed the lives of over 620,000 soldiers. The devastation was so intense that it was said that every family had someone they knew who had died while at war. While the soldiers who had returned home safely were being praised for their services and bravery, a drugstore owner, Henry Welles of Waterloo, New York, suggested that a day to honor the people who were killed in the war be observed. He suggested that wreaths and flowers be taken to the graves of those who had laid down their lives in honor of the nation. While this idea was not taken up that year, the following spring, on May 5, 1866, under the supervision of General John B. Murray (a Civil War hero), a ceremony was held whereby the entire fraternity of residents, surviving war heroes and veterans marched to the cemeteries in black garb and flags, decorated the graves with flowers and wreaths and prayed for the souls of the departed soldiers.
It was General John A. Logan, (the leader of an organization that honored Northern Civil War veterans) who suggested that the day be shifted from the 5th of May to the 30th of the same month. It was believed that this was done because that particular date did not celebrate the anniversary of any battle. He proclaimed -
|"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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.|
After which, the day came to be known as 'Decoration Day' and became a yearly tradition. It wasn't until 1882 that the name was changed to 'Memorial Day'.
While Waterloo in New York came to be known as the official birthplace of this Day, there were several other places in the South that claimed that they were the first to observe the day. In South Carolina, the freed enslaved Africans were observed to have gathered around a mass grave of Civil war soldiers and honored them through songs and prayers.
For several years, Memorial Day was celebrated on the 30th of May, but in 1968 the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which changed the date of celebration from the 30th of May to the last Monday of May. This was done such that a three-day weekend would be created for federal employees. The act was passed and went into effect in 1971, also declaring Memorial Day a federal holiday.
With time, this day extended to include the honoring of not merely those soldiers who had died in the Civil War but all those men and women who had laid down their lives in service of the nation. Today, however, the day is also observed as a personal remembrance by most American families.
Memorial Day Traditions
The day is marked by varied celebrations that are observed at both, the official and personal levels. On this day, each year, varied towns and cities throughout the U.S. host special parades. Several military officials and war veterans are an active part of the same. This is done in honor of the dead soldiers. Officially, Memorial Day celebrations take place at the Arlington National Cemetery (where a speech was given by General James Garfield during the first national celebration). As a tradition, small American flags are placed on each grave. The ceremony also includes the President or Vice President placing a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a tribute for their service to the nation. There are over five thousand people in attendance, it is said.
Other than that, 'displaying the flag' is also observed with great fervor. The flag is displayed at half staff till noon, after having displayed it at full staff for sometime at dawn. At 3 pm, all Americans observe a moment of silence and pray for the war heroes.
Families visit graveyards and place wreaths and flowers (poppy flowers) on the graves of their loved ones. Many wear red poppies as well to honor those who have laid down their lives for the country. The poppy flower has come to be the unofficial symbol of this day.
Some families will also hold lessons on the purpose and history of Memorial Day especially for kids so that they become well acquainted with their rich heritage and history.
While these are some of the official traditions and activities that are observed on this day, many families also take it as an opportunity to go on a holiday because of the 3 day long weekend that it brings. Unofficially it marks the beginning of summer, and many families are seen to set out on picnics during the extended weekend.
Over the years, Memorial Day has become a tradition that binds the United States together, given its rich History. People observe the day with pride and honor. This year will be no different as well.