This 3-day weekend in the US is for celebrating Memorial Day, a time often known for the year’s first camping trips, first cookouts, parades and festivals, and most of all, for honoring the soldiers that have died in service to America. Originally called Decoration Day, it first became popular after the Civil War, May 30 was chosen as the optimal time for flowers to be in bloom, for leaving on graves to decorate them, and/or because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. The National Holiday Act of 1971 caused the holiday to be observed on the last Monday, making a 3 day weekend for federal employees.
More than 20 small towns in America claim to have invented Memorial Day, President Johnson declared the birthplace to be Waterloo, NY, in 1966, but many have argued the truth of that, and in reality it is impossible to tell for sure, many stories have merit as to it’s beginnings. A widely publicized event was held in May 1865 in Charleston, SC, with black residents honoring dead Union soldiers who had been POW’s.
Over the years it has become more of a celebratory weekend, all about the hot dogs, a day to remember all dead, and almost a second Veteran’s Day, all of these things deserve respect, but Memorial Day was intended just to honor the dead. The picnic aspect came from Southern traditions, when people would travel a long way to a grave, and meet family they had not seen since last Memorial Day, so it became a mini-reunion of sorts, woth picnic lunches being held near the gravesites.
At 3 pm, local time, on Memorial Day, there is a moment of silence observed, a moment to stop what you are doing, listen to Taps or sit in silence, and remember those who died to protect us.
The poppy is often handed out on Memorial Day, usually for a donation to support veterans or their families, this is because of a poem written in 1915, “In Flanders Fields,” in 1918 Moina Michael wrote in response, “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,” she fashioned a red silk poppy to pin on her coat, and sold them to friends and co-workers to support servicemen in need.
Coins are often found on graves, a tradition with roots in ancient history, with coins being given to pay to cross the river Styx, it became more popular in America after VietNam, when veterans would quietly leave coins, not wanting to start arguments about an unpopular war. Traditionally a penny means you stopped by, a nickel means you went to boot camp together, a dime means you served together, and a quarter means you were there when the person died. Money is gathered by cemetery staff and is used to maintain the cemetery and pay for funerals for indigent veterans. If you don’t have the right denomination any gift is welcome.
This Memorial Day, enjoy your cookout, enjoy your family, but don’t forget to spend a moment or two thinking of the soldiers who have fallen, protecting your right to have a cookout with your family today.
In loving memory of all those who never came home… we will never forget…
Photos: private collection and CBS News