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Memorial Day – Celebrations of the Past and Present

 By: Becky E. Zook RN, BSN, MS 

Memorial Day marks the beginning of the summer season; a time when school is ending, backyard cook-outs are beginning, and a range of “On Sale” adverts from automobiles to mattresses appear in the media. But what does Memorial Day mean, and how do past and present celebrations differ?

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was first called for on May 5, 1868, when General John A. Logan, a Northern Civil War veteran, and leader, announced a day of remembrance for those who died during the Civil Way. Later that month, May 30, 1868, was designated the day of celebration. Families and friends of the fallen decorated graves in honor of the sacrifices of life made by the militias. The president, James Garfield, gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, resulting in over 20,000 graves receiving decorations in honor of the Civil War soldiers buried there.

By 1890, most Northern States declared Decoration Day as an official state holiday, while the Southern States honored the fallen soldiers on a different day during the year. It wasn’t until after World War I that the Southern States joined the Northern States in celebrating Decoration Day on the same day in May. Slowly, Decoration Day became Memorial Day as the United States continued to become embroiled in international conflicts, such as  World War II, The Korean War, and many others. 

Memorial Day Celebrations – Then and Now

The early celebrations of Memorial Day (Decoration Day) were marked by visitation to the graves of the fallen soldiers, the placement of flowers, and a moment of silence at 3:00 PM sharp. 

In the early 1900s, Memorial Day became a community-wide celebration that lasted several days. Activities included musical festivals, church picnics, military veterans visiting school children, public speeches, and more. The events culminated as veterans, local dignitaries, politicians, and public members descended upon cemeteries to place flowers on the graves of soldiers.

By the mid-1900s, the National Celebration of Memorial Day was common. In addition to the traditional ceremonies, families, and friends across the country gathered for parties, celebrated days off from work or school, took vacations, and coined Memorial Day as the unofficial start of the summer.

Fast forward to today, and Memorial Day marks a long weekend for most adults and children, the start of summer and backyard bar-b-que season, beach vacations, trips to amusement parks, and the famous hot dogs and apple pie so many people enjoy. 

Remembrance of the Fallen

It is essential for us to take a pause and remember the original intention of Decoration Day and its evolution to Memorial Day. The celebration and remembrance of those fallen in war or conflict extends to all who fought to protect the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. While there is political unrest in our country and differences in value systems as we think of freedom and combat, we can all honor someone we lost in service to our country, whether in war or in times of peace. 

In addition, I would challenge my fellow Americans to remember those who died during National tribulations, such as 9-11-2001, the COVID pandemic, the January 6th insurrection at the Capital, and many more struggles of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Each one of these deceased individuals, regardless of ethnic background, religious affiliation, citizenship, or other deeply personal orientation, died serving America and her people. I extend my deepest, heartfelt gratitude to the fallen, both past and present. 

Please join me today, at 3:00 PM, to honor them with a prayerful moment of silence.


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