Today is Memorial Day, a day to honor the nation’s war dead. Originally known as Decoration Day, because Civil War veterans’ graves were decorated by flowers, it originated in the south in 1865 and later spread to the north. Originally, it was a somber day, marked by prayer and remembrance. But in recent years, it has evolved into primarily a day off work, connoting the unofficial first day of summer and shopping holiday.
Perhaps it’s even a day of amnesia.
The true origins of Memorial Day are unknown, but custom tells us that southern women determined to put flowers on the graves of their Confederate dead to honor them, which spread to flowers for the Union dead as well. Unofficial Memorial Day observances occurred across the south, and then the north, from early April to early June, depending on many factors. Then the day grew to include parades, picnics, and patriotic speeches.
According to an article in the Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days, by history professor Matthew Dennis, General John Logan, a leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, asked Congress in 1868 to make Memorial Day a national holiday, but with animosities still running high, it did not happen.
As the years passed, the hostile feelings simmered down, and in 1889, Congress finally made Memorial Day a national holiday.
Dennis presents an interesting and balanced article on Memorial Day, bringing out various aspects we might not have thought of. For instance, Dennis chronicles the transformation of the holiday from a sectarian observance of the political differences between the north and south, to a day of reconciliation and leisure. He also documents how African-Americans of that time felt about the holiday they were basically left out of and how they, and Native Americans, were forced to pay homage to people who had contributed to their own oppression.
When new wars, and new commemorations such as Armistice Day (now Veteran’s Day) came along, Memorial Day was eclipsed in importance and in 1971, it became one of the formerly important holidays turns into an opportunity for a three-day weekend. Dennis believes that Americans will not be likely to restore Memorial Day as "a moment of serious, historical reflection, graced by solemn ceremonies and large attentive crowds." But he also believes that it will survive on the American calendar and will "retain a latent power to stir up feelings of patriotism."
At any rate, your Abilene Public Library hopes you will commemorate Memorial Day in the way you best see fit with your loved ones, whether it is a flag on the porch, a picnic, or both.
Article Contributed by Janis C. Test, Information Services Manager at the Main Library