As we take this Memorial Day to remember those who gave their lives to protect and defend our country, we wanted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the holiday that takes the time to reflect upon and appreciate the contributions of our armed forces.
Today, Memorial Day honors all veterans, but the holiday was originally called Decoration Day, and was created in reverence to those who lost their lives in the Civil War. General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s group born out of the Cvil War, first declared the holiday in 1868, proclaiming:
The 30th day 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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit. . . .
If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from hishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery on the first Decoration Day in 1868. After World War I, Decoration Day was re-designated to honor the fallen American soldiers who died fighting in any U.S. wars. Memorial Day, as it came to be known, was only officially recognized as a national holiday in 1971, and is now observed on the last Monday of May each year.
- When raising the American flag on Memorial Day, it is to be raised quickly to full-mast, and then lowered slowly and solemnly to half-mast. At noon, the flag is to be raised to full staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country, and the full-staff position represents the raising of their memory, and a commitment to not to let their sacrifice be in vain.
- Many American’s think of the British people wearing red poppies on Armistice Day (November 11, which coincides with our American Veteran’s Day), but the memorial red poppy originated in the U.S. and are a traditional decoration for Memorial Day. Inspired by the famous World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael wrote a poem of her own:
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 was the first to wear a poppy in remembrance, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. A Frenchwoman traveling to the U.S., heard of the custom, and began selling artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. The tradition soon spread to other European countries, and in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies.
- Many cities and towns across the U.S. hold Memorial Day parades. Ironton, Ohio, puts on the nation’s oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade. The first parade was held May 5, 1868, and the town has held it every year since.
- In 2000, Congress passed the “National Moment of Remembrance Act,” for 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 commemorating as they choose at 3 pm on Memorial Day.
As some families gather to remember a relative’s service, or others gather for Memorial Day parades, cookouts, or picnics, please take a moment today to remember those who lost their lives in service to all of us, and those who continue to sacrifice for our country every day.