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The History Behind Why We Celebrate Memorial Day

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TR Robertson

TR Robertson — Memorial Day, originally referred to as Decoration Day, is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering and honoring people who have died while serving in the United States armed Forces. This holiday is currently observed on the last Monday of May. From 1868 until 1970 it was observed on May 30th.

Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of the summer vacation season and Labor Day, in September, is considered the end of the summer season. One of the traditions of Memorial Day is the placing of American Flags on the graves of those who have died in service to our country. This was first observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, done after a proclamation by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union soldiers and sailors. Logan referred to this as Decoration Day. The celebration featured a speech by Ohio Congressman James Garfield at Arlington National Cemetery, with 5,000 people in attendance who then assisted in decorating the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Today, the President or Vice President of the United States lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

There is some controversy as to the actual “first observance”. Some say it took place in Warrenton, Virginia, in 1861; others say Savannah, Georgia, in 1862; others say Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863; and still others say Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1864.

In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. After World War II, it became an occasion for honoring all Americans who died while fighting for America. In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established that Memorial Day was to be commemorated on the last Monday of May.

Several Southern states officially commemorate an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate dead, referred to as a Confederate Memorial Day or the Gray Memorial Day. This occurs on January 19 in Texas, the third Monday in January in Arkansas, the fourth Monday in April in Alabama and Mississippi, April 26 in Florida and Georgia, May 10 in North and South Carolina, and last Monday in May in Virginia and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.

On Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised to the top of the staff and then slowly lowered to the half-staff position, where it must remain until noon. At noon the flag is then raised to the full-staff position. Each Memorial Day the National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol. The National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed in December 2000 which asks that all Americans, at 3 pm local time, “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”. Taps is a 24-note bugle call played at all military funerals and memorial services. It originated in 1862.

The World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields”, by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. In 1918, a Georgia teacher and YMCA volunteer, named Moina Michael, began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for “keeping the faith with all who died.” The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National American Legion.

Another Memorial Day observance, this one started in 1911, still continuing today, is the running of the Indianapolis 500, won in 1911 by Ray Harroun who averaged 74.6 mph, running the race in 6 hours and 42 minutes. Today, the race is run on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend. Last year’s winner was Will Power, winning the race for the first time with an average speed of 166.9 mph and running the 500 miles in right at 3 hours. The tradition of the winner drinking milk or pouring the milk on their head began in 1933 when winner Louis Meyer disliked the champagne he was given and requested buttermilk to cool off.

Regardless of how you celebrate Memorial Weekend, a family outing, a barbeque, a movie, trip to the beach, or just kicking back and relaxing; take some time to think about the reason you have time to enjoy some time off and what others have sacrificed to give you the opportunity to spend time with those around you. Remember that there is more to this holiday than just another day off.


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  • Published: 5 months ago on May 26, 2019
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  • Last Modified: May 27, 2019 @ 1:08 am
  • Filed Under: Local

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