The nation will celebrate Memorial Day on Monday, May 28, 2012 as the official kick-off for summer. Lest we forget, however, the holiday was created in remembrance of those who died in military service to our country. The original holiday, known as Decoration Day, was declared by General John A. Logan, national commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, on May 5, 1868 to honor those who died during the Civil War. The first Memorial Day tradition was celebrated with the placing of flowers on the graves of the war dead in Arlington National Cemetery.
Birth of a celebration
W. Scott Poole analyzed how the legacy of the Civil War has evolved in his article, “Memory and the Abolitionist Heritage: Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the Uncertain Meaning of the Civil War.” According to Poole, Memorial Day celebrations became part of a trend that moved the emphasis of the Civil War from emancipation to a celebration of bravery by all who fought, both North and South.
“Speeches and parades marked the day from its beginning, with much of the emphasis falling on the bravery of the Union soldier rather than the legacy of emancipation. As early as the 1870s, celebrants sometimes even commemorated the bravery of the Confederate soldier…. By 1904, a sentimentalized view of the enemy and of the causes of the conflict had become de rigueur in public ruminations about the war,” Poole said.
By 1890, Memorial Day had become a legal holiday in every Northern state. However, Southern states refused to recognize Memorial Day, choosing instead to pay homage to their fallen with other holidays throughout the year. This did not change until the armistice of World War I, when the emphasis changed from honoring the Civil War dead to honoring all Americans who died in military service to our country.
A day of remembrance
Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30 for decades until 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson officially changed the name to Memorial Day. In 1971, the holiday was moved to the last Monday in May in compliance with the National Holiday Act, which requires that all Federal holidays (with a few exceptions) fall on a Monday in order to provide a three-day weekend.
Some people, including Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, believe that the move to Monday has contributed to the loss of significance in the meaning of the holiday. Others believe that a celebration related to the military has lost its significance in recent years as the U.S. has entered into conflicts that present no clear moral definition compared to World War II, for example, where the nation was united in its goal to overcome the enemy. Pamela V. Krol outlined the evolution of our Memorial Day celebration in her article, “Honoring Our Heroes.” According to Krol, enthusiasm for celebrating the holiday as a day of remembrance is on the rise.
“The National Memorial Day Parade returned to Washington, D.C., in 2005, after a hiatus more than 60 years. Organized by the American Veteran’s Center, thousands of spectators lined the streets of the nation’s capital for the first national Memorial Day parade since the outbreak of World War II. The parade has been held every year since, and enthusiasm continues to grow- drawing nearly 300,000 spectators since 2007,” Krol said.
In some quarters, Memorial Day celebrations never lost their significance. David Merchant described these traditions in his April 4, 2009 post for US Memorial Day.org titled, “Memorial Day History.”
In 1915, Moina Michael penned a poem in honor of the day and began the tradition of wearing a red poppy in remembrance, “That the blood of heroes never dies.” Ever since that time, the sale of red poppies, both real and artificial, has been implemented to raise money for the benefit of war orphans. The tradition is carried on today by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), who sell artificial poppies made by disabled veterans.
Senator Inouye has been trying to pass legislation to have Memorial Day returned to May 30 for years, without success. So far, there has been only one piece of legislation that aims to return the holiday to its roots.
“To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, 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 listening to Taps.’ […] A step in the right direction to returning the meaning back to the day,” Merchant explained.