Monday, May 28, 2007
Best wishes to American Readers for a wonderful Memorial Day!
Did you know that this observance was originally known as Decoration Day?
Waterloo, New York is named as the official birthday of the holiday. However, most historians believe that several communities in the North and South observed decorations days -- days when they placed flowers and garlands on the graves of the Civil War dead. Certainly, many organized groups of Southern women began decorating Confederate graves before the war ended. In 1865, liberated slaves and some Union soldiers held a huge Decoration Day at the site of a former Confederate prison -- a place where many Union soldiers had died.
Women in certain towns in Vermont and Pennsylvania honored fallen Union soldiers. My guess is that this custom sprang up in Pennsylvania and the South because there were simply more Civil War graves in these states. Many soldiers were not shipped home, but were buried near where they fell. This meant that there are many graves in the states where actual Civil War battles occurred.
A northern General named John A. Logan was impressed by the way these town-wide decoration days were occurring all over the South. It made him think of how the ancient Greeks had honored their soldiers. So, he thought the North needed to expand their own honoring of the war dead.
It was partly through Logan's influence that a unified and national Decoration Day came together. The date of May 30th (now moved to the nearest Monday in May) was chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. Therefore, the day was associated with neither a victory nor a defeat for either the South or the North. It was hoped that this neutral date would inspire both former Confederates and former Union members to honor their dead together, as a means of healing the rift left by the national conflict.
Ironically, however, the very Southerners who had inspired the General's idea of a national Decoration Day shunned it. They preferred to hold their own memorials in honor of the Confederacy.
Finally, after World War I, North and South became unified in honoring Decoration Day. The holiday was expanded to include Americans who died in WWI, as well as in any war. Since many casualties of the Great War came from the South, Southerners were eager to join their Northern compatriots in remembering the fallen from this world conflict. However, many Southern communities took up the national Decoration Day observance, but continued to hold separate memorial days specifically in memory of the Confederacy.
The alternative name, "Memorial Day," was first used in the 1880's, but most people called it "Decoration Day" well on into the 20th century. In 1967, a Federal law was passed that declared the official name was to be "Memorial Day".
In some places in the Southeast, all the various Confederate decorations days sort of morphed into one day in May about a week before national Memorial Day. On this special day, Southern families placed flowers on the graves of all of their departed -- whether their loved ones were ever in the military or not. I'm not sure if this custom still persists or not. But, I do know that many Southern families are very conscientious about seeing that beautiful flowers are always on their loved one's graves.
Today, many people use silk. I assume that other parts of the country must follow this custom, as well, but I'm not sure. Maybe, some of you would care to comment about the custom in your part of the world.
There are many other countries in the world that celebrate certain days to remember soldiers who died in wars.