Memorial Day evolved from simple remembrances to a federal holiday

Karl Teel

How many people truly know what Memorial Day is, how it came about, and what its purpose was?

Many of us recognize the commercial aspects: kicking off the summer season, the three-day weekend, parades, barbecues, and flags.

But it’s so much more than that, and we are in the perfect region to truly appreciate the meaning and importance of it.

pub noteOriginally, it was called Decoration Day, after the practice of placing flowers — decoration — on the graves of soldiers. Like many traditions, Memorial Day didn’t magically appear, it evolved.

After the Civil War, many families would place flowers on the graves of their loved ones lost in battles, often at a time symbolic of the date of death, end of a battle, or completion of a victory. Over time, many cities and towns recognized some of these dates and had their own holidays. Remember, more than 600,000 soldiers died in the Civil War and an enormous chunk of the nation’s population of 31 million had suffered losses that needed to be remembered.

While the federal government created military cemeteries for Union soldiers, people in the South established many cemeteries for Confederate soldiers lost in the war.

In Charleston, S.C., there was a widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance in May 1865. The largely African-American participants celebrated both their soldiers and also freedom from slavery.

Various steps were taken and attempts made using the timing of these events and their meaning to create a nationally recognized holiday which would also promote healing between the North and the South. A century later, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, N.Y., as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

However, numerous other cities make a similar claim, including Boalsburg, in Centre County, Pa., which contributed perhaps the highest number of volunteers per capita than any other village in the North. Three local women began decorating the graves of their Civil War soldiers in July 1864, and Memorial Day remains a major tradition in the town.

The name “Memorial Day” can be traced as early as 1882, however, it didn’t come into common use until after World War II and it wasn’t until 1967 that it was declared the official name by federal law.

In 1968, Congress passed an act moving four holidays (including Memorial Day) from their traditional dates to Monday dates, creating the three-day weekends we enjoy today. Memorial Day is now always the last Monday in May. It took a few more years before all 50 states adopted the changes.

So, here we are in the Mid-Atlantic area, the forefront of the battleground between the North and South, as well as in the cradle of our government’s headquarters of this reunified nation. What better place to celebrate and immerse ourselves in the rich history. Sure, divisions exist today on many levels in our country and they probably always will. But as Mark Twain once observed, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Perhaps some travel in your future will not only be a part of the celebration, but a part of the solution as well. Enjoy!

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