Who Invented Memorial Day, and What does Memorial Day mean now?

51BjOL3l28L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The post office closes. Banks close. Schools take the day off. Stores mount sales. It is a national holiday.


On Memorial Day most families relax, maybe out of town because Memorial Day always falls on a Monday and gives us a three-day weekend. Most Americans plan for Memorial Day as they do for any vacation days. They plan for fun. They plan to catch up on household chores. They plan get-togethers with friends. They plan trips. Most do not plan visits to a cemetery to place flowers on a grave.


This was once the practice. Our country shifted course in 1971 when Congress’s 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act became the law and moved four national holidays to Mondays to create three-day weekends.


Daniel Inouye, senator of Hawaii, introduced resolutions repeatedly until his death to return Memorial Day to its original May 30 date. He felt the three-day weekend minimized the meaning of the federal holiday.


When Memorial Day first came into being is under some dispute, but there are a number of Memorial-Day style celebration stories of note.


It is a reasonable claim that the holiday was invented by African-Americans. In 1865, after the Civil War, a group of almost 10,000 freedmen, church pastors, and teachers cleaned up and landscaped a Union prisoner burial ground in Charleston, South Carolina, and decorated it with flowers. But this event may not have launched the national celebration.


In 1868 John Logan, a Union Civil War general, called for a national “Decoration Day” to lay flowers on soldiers’ graves in the north and south. He chose the day as one when no Civil War battles had taken place, and when things were in bloom, May 30.


Decoration Day became Memorial Day to honor those who died in service after the Civil War as well. For some communities Decoration Day, and then Memorial Day, were family reunions at cemeteries and included religious services or potluck picnics.


We divide our war dead and our living fighters. Veterans Day we honor all those who have fought. Memorial Day we honor those who died serving. Perhaps it is inaccurate to say we honor them when we may be playing at the beach or weeding the garden or sleeping in. Or perhaps we do honor by playing, weeding, or sleeping as pursuits of happiness, American rights protected by those who lost their lives in warfare. For many the holiday only means summer is unofficially underway.


In Mehdi’s Memorial Day Run, Arleen Williams explains the holiday through the interactions of Mehdi, a young immigrant man out for his morning run, with Amanda, a young woman laying flowers on a grave. The story also includes a hint of romance. This is the time of year to get copies of Mehdi’s Memorial Day Run for the immigrants in your life — friends, students.


How will you spend your Memorial Day?





2 Comments Add yours

  1. My mother always called this day Decoration Day. She lived from 1909 to 1986. Her parents were new to the United States in 1905, so she can’t have known this from Civil War days. New York City people.


    1. So interesting! Yes–many people continued to call it Decoration Day. Also, Memorial Day and its ilk had precursors.


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