This weekend, millions of Americans will celebrate Memorial Day. To many of them MD is merely a day off from work, a day to gather with friends and relatives, watch sports, barbecue, or maybe go away for a mini-vacation. But, how many of us actually stop and ponder the meaning of MD? What does it mean? What is its derivation? Well, I’m glad you asked. Read on.
According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs the purpose of MD is to honor veterans who have died in the service of their country. (Some people confuse it with Veterans’ Day, celebrated in November, which is to honor LIVING veterans for their service.) MD is celebrated on the final Monday in May, which this year is May 25. It has also evolved into the unofficial start of summer, Opening Day for beaches, pools and vacation homes.
The original name for MD was “Decoration Day.” The custom of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is centuries old. Its origins are murky, but after the Civil War it became customary to “decorate” soldiers’ graves with flowers as a way to honor those who had died in that war.
Several cities claim to be the birthplace of MD. Warrenton, Va. claims that the first CW soldier’s grave was decorated there in 1861. Women began decorating soldiers’ graves in Savannah, Ga. as early as 1862. Boalsburg, Pa. and Charleston, SC, among others, have also made claims. NY became the first state to recognize MD as an official holiday in 1873. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY to be the official birthplace of MD.
The basis of Waterloo’s claim is that in 1865 a group of locals, including a pharmacist, Henry Welles, General John Murray, a CW hero, and a group of other veterans, simply marched to the local cemeteries and decorated the soldiers’ graves with flowers. What gave Waterloo an edge in the birthplace battle was that Murray was an acquaintance of General John Logan, the general who issued “Logan’s Order, ” the proclamation that declared “Decoration Day” should be celebrated annually nationwide.
At first, MD was celebrated on May 30. The date seems somewhat arbitrary as it was not the anniversary of any famous battle or military event. Perhaps, it was chosen simply because flowers with which the graves are decorated are in bloom and plentiful at that particular time of the year. The name, “Decoration Day” was gradually replaced by MD beginning in 1882, and in 1887 MD became the official name. In 1968 the Congress moved the holiday to the last Monday in May. This annoyed many traditionalists, but the lure of a three-day weekend overcame any objections, and the Monday date has prevailed.
There are some MD traditions worth noting:
1. Flying the flag at half-staff.
Most of the time one will see the flag flown at half-staff all day; however, technically, this is not proper. The flag should be raised to the top and then lowered to half-staff. This is intended to honor those who have died for their country. At noon, the flag is to be raised again to full staff, where it remains for the rest of the day. This is to recognize that the deceased veterans’ sacrifices were not in vain.
Poppies have become the official flower of remembrance, declared as such by the American Legion in 1920. This is derived from WWI and the Battle of Ypres (English pronunciation is “Wipers.”). Apparently, a proliferation of poppies grew on that battlefield around soldiers’ graves. These poppies were featured in a famous poem by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae called “In Flanders Fields.” This poem caught people’s imagination and popularized the custom.
3. Sporting Events.
No American holiday celebration would be complete without a sports connection. MD has the Indianapolis 500 and the Memorial golf tournament, among others. Also, until recently there was the traditional Memorial Day baseball doubleheader.
I hope the foregoing has increased your understanding and appreciation of MD. So, whatever you do this weekend, however you celebrate, try to pause for a moment in honor of the many veterans who have given their lives so that the rest of us could enjoy the freedoms we sometimes take for granted.