Every year, without really knowing why, Americans observe Memorial Day on the last Monday in May. Originally called "Decoration Day", it is a day designated to commemorate those who have died in combat while serving in the US Armed Forces. Memorial Day is often confused with Veterans Day, which is celebrated to honor all living soldiers and sailors who have served in an American war. Veterans Day is observed on the second Monday in November except in a leap year when it is then celebrated on the second Monday in November.
Historians have traced the origins of Memorial Day back to the American Civil War. The location of the first observance, however, is and always will be in dispute. Although the government has designated one town as the founder, historians agree that several communities, one in Belle Isle at Richmond, Virginia, and another in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, began practicing similar traditions at about the same time. Following the end of the terrible conflict that divided family loyalties like no other war, people across the country decorated the graves of all the Civil War fallen with flowers and flags, and held special services for the deceased with songs and speeches.
One of the first communities to institute this practice was Waterloo, New York (not to be confused with the place where the little Italian emperor who always kept one arm inside his coat met his eventual demise). A druggist named Henry Welles decided that the town should hold a celebration to honor those locals who had fought and died in the war. He suggested that soldiers graves be decorated and that survivors be honored with a parade. With the help of local officials and townspeople, Welles organized one of the first Decoration Day celebrations. It was held on May 5, 1866.
An important figure in establishing the official observance of Memorial Day was General John A. Logan. He organized a group of Union veterans called the Grand Army of The Republic (GAR). On May 5, 1868, General Logan issued an order designating May 30 as a day to honor all soldiers and sailors who died in the Civil War on both sides by decorating their graves. He called it "Decoration Day". As a result of this order, Waterloo and other communities soon began celebrating Decoration Day on May 30th as well.
In 1882, the GAR changed the name of the holiday to Memorial Day. This evolved as recognition for soldiers who had died in any American war as opposed to just the Civil War. The name was also meant to highlight the importance of remembering these people for who they were in life as opposed to decorating where they lay in death. By this time, Memorial Day was already a legal holiday in the northern United States. The South, however (as stubborn as many members of even my own family), refused to acknowledge it and chose instead to honor only the Confederate dead on a completely different day. Following World War One, the southern states eventually came around to a national way of thinking, but continued to observe another separate day for those who died for the Confederate cause. The Confederate Memorial Day in the South varies from state to state.
Since 1971, when President Nixon declared it a national holiday, Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday in May by most states. Many communities organize special activities for the day, including parades, marches, speeches and church services. It is often a day of picnics and barbecues and the gathering of families to remember loved ones. Veterans groups, Boy Scouts and Girl scouts often decorate graves with flags and flowers, and take part in special holiday events. Military bands often join the festivities, filing the air with patriotic music.
On military bases, soldiers fire rifles into the air to honor their lost comrades. In remembrance of those who died at sea, sailors toss flowers into the ocean. In some US ports, it is common to see miniature ships filled with flowers floating on the water. Veterans and other volunteers sell small, red artificial flowers called poppies to raise funds for disabled veterans. Across the nation, the American flag flies at half-staff until noon.
In May of 1966, Waterloo was recognized as the "birthplace" of Memorial Day by the US government. This recognition was long in coming and involved hours of painstaking research to prove the claim. While other communities may attest to earlier observances of honoring the Civil War dead, none have been so well planned and complete, or maintained the same continuity of observances that Waterloo has. The Centennial celebration of 1966 brought dignitaries from government, military and veterans organizations and descendants of the original founders of Memorial Day. A once luxurious home on Waterloos Main Street, built in 1850, was purchased by the county and restored. Now the Memorial Day Museum, it houses artifacts of the first Memorial Day celebration and the Civil War era.
For those of us lucky enough to still be on top of the sod, every day of life is and should be a memorial day. It is only when we lose that which we love that we realize how much it really meant to us. We are all soldiers in the fight for life and the pursuit of our own happiness. We must never forget those that died and learn not to take other things for granted as well. For example, right now I can smell that grill heating up in my own back yard. I hear meat sizzling and people buzzing and glasses clinking. I forget what we were talking about, but whatever it was, I am hungry. See you later and have a safe and happy and legal (whatever that means) holiday.
Happy hot dog and hamburger too!
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