So it’s May and most of us have been looking forward to this weekend! Memorial Day is a great time to have a long weekend – the weather’s looking up, summer is nearly here, and for a lot of people, it’s the perfect time to have a BBQ or head out for a day with the family. It certainly is good to have an extra day off (if you’re one of the lucky ones!), but there’s a lot more to Memorial Day than not having to be at work. It’s a day with an important and solemn purpose, and that’s to remember all of the United States servicemen and women who have died in the line of duty.
Memorial Day began after the American Civil War, and was first observed in the old Confederacy. The first recorded commemoration was on May 1, 1865. Black residents of Charleston, South Carolina turned out to maintain the resting place of Union prisoners who had died in a POW camp at the city’s race course. The gesture struck a chord. Starting in 1866, local associations, often founded by war widows, dedicated one day a year to visiting war graves and making sure they were being properly cared for. By 1868 it had caught on in the north as well; General John A. Logan designated May 30 as “Decoration Day,” and that year 168 war cemeteries were decorated with flowers and national flags. People gathered to remember the fallen, and for most families it was a deeply personal occasion – after the slaughter of the Civil War few families were left untouched.
Michigan made Decoration Day an official holiday in 1871, and other states quickly followed their example. By 1890, it was a public holiday in every northern state. As the bitterness of the war faded, people slowly lost the distinction between the dead of the North or South and simply honored brave American soldiers and sailors. As early as 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi were decorating the graves of both armies. The new holiday was first called Memorial Day in 1882, and that name slowly gained popularity, although it didn’t become official until 1967. In 1968, the date was officially changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
Today, Memorial Day is a popular holiday. There are even sporting events scheduled around it – the Indy 500 is one, taking place the Sunday before. On the day itself, people meet up with friends and family, enjoy the sunshine (with a bit of luck) and enjoy themselves. But how many remember the reason for the holiday?
The fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen commemorated by Memorial Day don’t mind you enjoying yourself. In fact, they died to make it possible. None of them would begrudge you a couple of beers and a good day with your family. All that they – and we, their comrades – ask is that they’re not forgotten. Take some time today to remember them. Maybe even volunteer to help deck their graves with Old Glory. Make a small sacrifice for them, as thanks for the ultimate one they made for you.
Make the most of Memorial Day.