Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Take a Moment to Remember

This coming Monday will be Memorial Day. Do you know what it is for? Did you know that it wasn’t always called Memorial Day or that it wasn’t always observed on the last Monday in May?

No one really knows when—or where—Memorial Day first began, but observances were first held as a way of honoring those of both the North and South who died in battle in the Civil War. These events took place as early as 1866; although the village of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claims to have held the first observance in 1864. Some 25 communities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. On April 26, 1866, the women of Columbus, Mississippi gathered to lay flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers who had died in the Battle of Shiloh. In a moment of compassion, seeing the neglected state of the graves of the Union soldiers, and perhaps realizing that these soldiers also had grieving mothers, laid flowers on their graves as well. Macon and Columbus, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia, also claim being the first to decorate the graves of Confederate casualties.

There is a marker stone in a Carbondale, Illinois, cemetery that states a ceremony to decorate the graves of Union soldiers took place there on April 29, 1866—just three days after the event in Columbus, Mississippi. In Waterloo, New York, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored its soldiers who died in the Civil War as well as local veterans who had fought in the conflict. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff.
One common element among these observances is that that they were all local events, and many of them were one-time occasions. Another is that they were virtually all called “Decoration Day.” These events also all occurred in the spring—in April or May.

In early May of 1868, General James Logan, who was the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic (the GAR, an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War, akin to today’s VFW—Veterans of Foreign Wars), declared that May 30th of each year, “Decoration Day,” should be “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.”  While this directive applied only to members of the GAR, many locales picked up the practice. In 1871 Michigan became the first state to make May 30th a state holiday. By 1890, every Northern state had also made it a state holiday, though the observance of the day was nation-wide.

 After World War I the day’s focus on Civil War dead shifted to remembering the fallen from all American conflicts. The phrase “Memorial Day” was used as early as 1882, but did not have much popularity until after WWII. In 1971 an Act of Congress established the phrase Memorial Day as the official name of the Federal holiday and also moved the observance to the last Monday in May.

Memorial Day has its own traditions:
  • Federal facilities are mandated to raise the US flag briskly to the top of the mast, then slowly lower it to half-mast. The flag is to remain at half-mast until noon whereupon it is once again raise to full height. Many scout troops throughout the nation will place small American flags on the graves of those who served in the US military. Flags are also placed on the graves of those in Arlington National Cemetery, the American Cemetery in Normandy, France, and Kentucky’s own Camp Nelson. Ceremonies are held at Arlington and other National cemeteries and often include the playing of “Taps.”
  • Many communities hold Memorial Day parades. Ironton, Ohio, claims to have the nation’s oldest continuously held Memorial Day Parade. Its first parade was held in 1868, and it has been held every year since. The parade in Washington, D.C. is the nation’s largest.
  • The running of the “Indianapolis 500” (aka Indy 500) has become an integral part of the Memorial Day celebrations. The first 500 was held on Decoration Day in 1911. This year’s race will mark the 100th running. (The race was not held in 1917-18, and 1942-45 due to WWI, and WWII.)
  • Cookouts and picnics are also part of the celebrations. Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start to cookout season and is the nation’s second-largest cookout day. July 4th has the top spot with Labor Day taking third place. 87% of the cookouts will include hamburgers, and steak comes in second. In fact, Memorial Day is the biggest day of the year for beef consumption—nearly 60 million pounds of it. Depending on the year and source, hot dogs (71 million of them), or chicken, take third place. Many cookouts (such as your truly’s) will feature several—or even all of those entrees. Corn on the cob is the top side item; veggies are second, and potatoes take third place.
  • Memorial Day weekend is also the unofficial start to the summer travel season. AAA projects that nearly 37 million Americans will take to the road on the weekend. Sadly, almost 400 of those will die in collisions on the way.
  • The National Memorial Day Concert which began in 1989 takes place on the west lawn of the US Capital in Washington, D.C. It is televised by PBS. This year’s concert performers will include General Colin L. Powell; RenĂ©e Fleming; The Beach Boys; The National Symphony Orchestra; The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, The U.S. Army Chorus, The Soldiers' Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band, The U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, The U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, the Armed Forces Color Guard, and Service Color Teams.
  • A new, and not yet well-known tradition is the “National Moment of Remembrance.” Enacted in 2001, the National Moment of Remembrance encourages “Americans everywhere, to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all.”
Many families have their own traditions. In my home, we display the US flag, have a cookout if the weather cooperates, and watch patriotic films (such as “Band of Brothers”) as a way of remembering the fallen.

What are your family traditions?






"Seven Fun Memorial Day Facts for the Holiday Weekend"



"Memorial Day Marks the Largest Beef Consumption Day of the Year"

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