Story The US holiday of Memorial Day began as grassroots remembrance of Union soldiers who died in the civil war. It was a day to decorate their gravestones and reminisce, and was promoted largely by the Grand Army of the Republic, basically the Unions veterans organization. It became called “Decoration Day,” and was celebrated in cemeteries throughout the North by the late 1868 and 69. It became a time for speeches to be given, bitter at first, but by the end of the 1870s the rancor was gone, and it became normal to praise the brave soldiers of both the Blue and Grey. Gradually it became a patriotic occasion to emphasize unity and forgiveness, as folk of all religions joined together in the commemorations, and folk of rival ethnicities did as well. Naturally, this took longer in the South, but by 1913, national unity, and a shared feeling of American exceptionalism, typically was emphasized over re-hashing the “lost cause” of the South, even in Southern Memorial Day speeches. The famous cemetery of Gettysburg played a key role, with obligatory parades and presidential speeches for many years.
Over time, the emphasis shifted and the name changed gradually from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day.” Decorating the graves and remembering folk who died in some other way than in the Civil War became normal. In WWI, veterans of that war were honored too, but by then it was normal to honor even non-veterans.
In the 1960s the emphasis of Memorial Day shifted again. In 1968 the Federal government passed the “Uniform Holidays Bill” shifting and renaming, 3 holidays, Washington’s Birthday became President’s Day, Decoration Day was officially renamed Memorial Day, and Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day. In each case they were moved from a fixed day, to always occurring on a Monday for the explicit purpose of creating a three day weekend. From 1868 to 1968 Memorial Day was observed always on May 30th, but since then its date has moved. And as its date moved so did its cultural function. Memorial Day became a time to relax, to celebrate the beginning of spring. Barbecues, trips to the pool, or family get-togethers became more typically associated with it than trips to the cemetery or public parades. Here in Indiana, it is associated with the Indianapolis 500, which has run on Memorial Day since 1911.
I am grateful that we as a culture take time occasionally to honor our dead.
I am grateful for symbols of national unity, especially of reconciliation which call us to set aside our differences and grievances and work together.
I am grateful that our nation does not allow legal slavery anymore.
I am grateful that our country has largely healed from the terrible wounds of a Civil War over a century ago.
I am grateful that the many religions of America can occasionally agree to pray together.
Other Notables for me for this day:
The birth of Mikhail Bakunin (anarchist) and Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny), and the death of Saint Voltaire (philosopher, writer and activist).