This weekend, millions of Americans will celebrate Memorial Day. Traditionally, most of us have viewed MD as a day off from work, part of a three-day weekend, a day to gather with friends and relatives, watch sports, barbecue, go to the beach or pool club, or maybe go away for a mini-vacation. This year, after more than a year of suffering through pandemic-related restrictions, most people are ready to “bust loose” and celebrate the holiday weekend in the traditional manner. In many areas of the country beaches, pools, amusement parks, picnic areas and other outdoor venues will be open and sporting events will resume, in many cases with full attendance.
Unfortunately, this year inclement weather will be a factor in many areas. In particular, rainy and record cold weather is forecast for the east and northeast for most of the weekend. This may put a damper on some holiday plans. Nevertheless, according to the Washington Post AAA is predicting that in excess of 37 million persons will be traveling by automobile this weekend. This would be a 60% increase over 2020 but some six million below the pre-pandemic average. If you are on the roads please use extra caution, particularly where the pavement is wet and/or slippery.
Normally, MD weekend is the deadliest three-day period on the roads. The National Safety Council estimates there will be some 400 traffic fatalities over the holiday weekend this year. Don’t become a statistic!
Back to the holiday, itself. How many of us actually stop and ponder the meaning of MD? What does it mean? What is its derivation? Well, I’m glad you asked. Read on.
According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs the purpose of MD is to honor veterans who have died in the service of their country. (Some people confuse it with Veterans’ Day, celebrated in November, which is to honor LIVING veterans for their service.) MD is celebrated on the final Monday in May, which this year is May 31. It has also evolved into the unofficial start of summer and Opening Day for beaches, pools and vacation homes. Last year, due to COVID restrictions these activities were severely limited, but this year due to widespread vaccinations many states have loosened restrictions. Most areas will enjoy a return to normalcy, or at least close to it.
The original name for MD was “Decoration Day.” The custom of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is centuries old. Its origins are murky, but after the Civil War it became customary to “decorate” soldiers’ graves with flowers as a way to honor those who had died in that war.
Several cities claim to be the birthplace of MD. Warrenton, Va. claims that the first CW soldier’s grave was decorated there in 1861. Women began decorating soldiers’ graves in Savannah, Ga. as early as 1862. Boalsburg, Pa. and Charleston, SC, among others, have also made claims. NY became the first state to recognize MD as an official holiday in 1873. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY to be the official birthplace of MD.
The basis of Waterloo’s claim is that in 1865 a group of locals, including a pharmacist, Henry Welles, General John Murray, a CW hero, and a group of other veterans, simply marched to the local cemeteries and decorated the soldiers’ graves with flowers. What gave Waterloo an edge in the birthplace battle was that Murray was an acquaintance of General John Logan, the general who issued “Logan’s Order,” the proclamation that declared “Decoration Day” should be celebrated annually nationwide.
At first, MD was celebrated on May 30 every year. The date seems somewhat arbitrary as it was not the anniversary of any famous battle or military event. Perhaps, it was chosen simply because flowers with which the graves are decorated are in bloom and plentiful at that particular time of the year. The name, “Decoration Day” was gradually replaced by MD beginning in 1882, and in 1887 MD became the official name. In 1968 the Congress moved the holiday to the last Monday in May. This annoyed many traditionalists, but the lure of a three-day weekend overcame any objections, and the Monday date has prevailed.
There are some MD traditions worth noting:
- Flying the flag at half-staff.
Most of the time one will see the flag flown at half-staff all day; however, technically, this is not proper. The flag should be raised to the top and then lowered to half-staff. This is intended to honor those who have died for their country. At noon, the flag is to be raised again to full staff, where it remains for the rest of the day. This is to recognize that the deceased veterans’ sacrifices were not in vain.
Poppies have become the official flower of remembrance, declared as such by the American Legion in 1920. This is derived from WWI and the Battle of Ypres (English pronunciation is “Wipers.”). Apparently, a proliferation of poppies grew on that battlefield around the soldiers’ graves. These poppies were featured in a famous poem by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae called “In Flanders Fields.” This poem caught peoples’ imagination and popularized the custom.
- Sporting Events.
No American holiday celebration would be complete without a sports connection. MD weekend features the Indianapolis 500 and the Memorial golf tournament, among others. Also, until recently there was the traditional Memorial Day baseball doubleheader. Alas, due to economics, scheduled holiday baseball doubleheaders are all but extinct. Many sports activities that were cancelled or muted last ear due to COVID restrictions have been reinstated. I suggest you research events in your area.
I hope the foregoing has increased your understanding and appreciation of MD. As a veteran, myself, I find it most gratifying that, in recent years, most Americans have come to recognize and appreciate the service and sacrifice of our country’s veterans. I can remember a time (the Vietnam War period) when it wasn’t so.
So, whatever you do this weekend, however you celebrate, try to pause for a moment in honor of the many veterans who have given their lives so that the rest of us could enjoy the freedoms we sometimes take for granted.