I was listening to an NPR special on Memorial Day this past Sunday, and I was reminded that we often lose sight of what this holiday means. On the radio program was the father of a young man recently killed in the service of his country. This grieving dad said everyone needs to remember that Memorial Day is not really about parades or picnics or a day off work and school. He said Memorial Day should be a reminder of what price continues to be paid to maintain the freedoms that we in the United States enjoy.
Memorial Day is really not about the living – not even living veterans. That day of recognizing all – living and dead – who have served our country in the military would be Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Memorial Day is about those soldiers who died while protecting our way of life.
North Augusta’s American Legion Post 71 has always worked hard to honor the true meaning of Memorial Day. I have spent many a fourth Monday in May at the Wade Hampton Veterans Park as Post 71 honored those in its membership who died since the previous Memorial Day. Anyone who has ever participated in a Memorial Day service knows that Post 71 generally does its veterans proud – from a display by North Augusta High School’s NJROTC to special patriotic music, a guest speaker (often from Fort Gordon), a reading of the names of those who died during the year, a 21-gun salute, the playing of Taps and placement of wreaths by each subset of Post 71, representing each war our veterans have been involved in, as well as some of the specialized units that have served.
It is almost impossible not to be moved by this ceremony. And, as I mentioned after my recent trip to Normandy, the daily ceremony there is perhaps the most moving of its kind that I’ve ever witnessed. Well, I might have to say that Normandy was particularly moving for me since my dad was there on D-Day. But, again, as you look out on the sea of white crosses, particularly when you realize how many are marked as “known only to God,” the thought of how many families were directly impacted by the thousands of American dead in that campaign fills you with awe and wonder. Again, as I reflect on the true meaning of Memorial Day, as I think about all those military men and women who have died in the service of our country, I wonder if, in the same situation, that I would be among those who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for a greater good.
In the United States the daily ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier definitely rank right up there in reminding us of those sacrifices made in our behalf. In today’s world of technology, it’s easy to forget that we still have soldiers whose lives are lost on the battlefield in the name of our freedoms.
So Memorial Day this year started me thinking: Just what do I know about this holiday, besides that it’s the last school holiday before the summer?
First, apparently there is some degree of controversy associated with Memorial Day and its origins. According to Wikipedia decorating soldiers’ graves has been going on for a very long time. In the United States such a practice dates to before and during the Civil War.
But there seems to be some dispute about the origins of the official Memorial Day. There were lots of “Decoration Days” celebrated in the years following the Civil War.
The first Memorial Day observed in the North seems to have taken place on May 30, 1868. The date may have been chosen specifically because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle. Then again, in a White House address in 2010, it was reported that May 30 might have been chosen simply because it was an optimum time for flowers to be in bloom in the North. By 1890 every Northern state had adopted Memorial Day celebrations.
Another story suggests that Memorial Day could have its roots in a celebration in Charleston on May 1, 1865, when freed African Americans held a parade that brought 10,000 people out to honor 257 dead Union soldiers, whose remains had been moved from a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp.
In any event a Ladies Memorial Association and subsequently the Daughters of the Confederacy popularized efforts to commemorate the Confederate dead in the South.
All these different “Decoration Day” events across the North and South gradually came together into a Memorial Day to honor all Americans who died while serving in the military – not just Civil War veterans. In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson designated Waterloo, New York, as the official location where Memorial Day was born. Waterloo had held an annual parade for 100 years (although snopes.com says the story of Waterloo’s place in history is largely a myth).
The date May 30 was the official Memorial Day until Congress decided to establish a “uniform Monday” for the celebration of many American holidays – Presidents Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Columbus Day. So now Memorial Day is set as the fourth Monday of May.
If you are interested in more information on Memorial Day, check out the Wikipedia article – it has numerous references listed that can take you to all sorts of stories about the holiday. Or, if you’re really interested in a more in-depth look at this holiday, Columbus (Georgia) State University Center for Memorial Day Research may be the place to go.
Meanwhile, I hope your Memorial Day renewed the importance of this holiday for you. It certainly did for me.