Memorial Day is a day set aside each year for Americans to honor and offer respect to the military men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – to protect their country, its people, and our freedom and liberties. It is a somber day that reminds us our constitutional rights come at a high price and should never be taken for granted.
Held the last Monday in May, it was first known as Decoration Day and began at the end of the Civil War, which claimed more lives than any other conflict in America’s history. Due to so many deaths, the nation had to establish cemeteries for the soldiers.
Various towns started decorating their lost warriors’ graves in the late 1860s, but Memorial Day didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971. Less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered, a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, held a commemoration for those who had died: This was one of the earliest known celebrations of its kind. No one is certain just where the tradition started, but in 1966, the government labeled Waterloo, New York, as the official place of origin. Waterloo had its first celebration on May 5, 1866.
In the North, on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan called for a remembrance saying, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
May 30 was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any battles, but the date was later changed for convenience to the last Monday in the month. Southern states, however, did not follow the May tradition until after World War I, and today some still celebrate on their own dates.
The Red Poppy
Have you ever wondered why the red poppy is seen during Memorial and Veterans Days? The tradition got its start during World War I in Europe. After brutal battles ravaged the land, the field poppy was one of the first plants to reappear, and the sight inspired Canadian soldier and physician John McCrae to write the poem In Flanders Fields in 1915. Flanders is a region in Belgium where McCrae fought.
Just days before WWI ended, in November 1918, American professor Moina Michael was inspired by McCrae’s poem which led her to write her own, We Shall Keep the Faith. In the poem, she mentions honoring the dead by wearing the “poppy red.” She became known as “The Poppy Lady,” and the tradition of wearing a single poppy was born and continues today.
Memorial Day Traditions
In the past, Memorial Day was usually celebrated with parades and gravesite services in cemeteries to honor and show respect for those who gave their lives in duty to their country. Military graves were decorated with flowers and flags, and people gathered to hear stories of the brave men and women while military personnel played service songs. Barbecues and time spent on beaches were another favorite activity on this three-day weekend.
This year, however, the Coronavirus lockdown has made it impossible to pay our respects to the fallen in traditional ways. Tributes are still being made, but they are broadcast over cable television and the internet instead of being attended in person.
“In Flanders Fields”
by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
“We Shall Keep the Faith”
by Moina Michael, November 1918
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.