Memorial Day, which will be celebrated on Monday, May 29 this year, is one of the most important holidays in the American calendar. Observed annually on the last Monday of the month, it honors the men and women who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Though the tradition is believed to have been started by local communities in the late 1800’s, the first official Memorial Day celebration is credited to Waterloo, New York. On May 5, 1866, the town’s residents organized a community-wide event to pay respects to perished soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers and flags.
Two years later, on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan decided to combine the various celebrations by declaring a national day of remembrance later that month, on May 30. Logan, the then Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, called it Decoration Day and hoped it would help unite the residents of the Northern and Southern States who were still recovering from the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The occasion was celebrated by placing small American flags and flowers on the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
By 1890, Decoration Day had become an official holiday in all the Northern States. The Southern States, however, continued to honor their dead on different days. They only began celebrating Decoration Day after World War I, when the holiday was extended to honor all soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for the country's freedom. Many, however, continue to honor perished Confederate soldiers with a second holiday dubbed Confederate Heroes Day. The date of the celebration ranges from January 19 (Texas) to the final Monday in April (Alabama and Mississippi) to June 3 (Louisiana).
The tradition of wearing artificial red poppies began in 1918 when American professor Moina Michael sold a few to her friends and co-workers to raise money for service persons. Madam Guerin, a French woman visiting the US, loved the idea so much that she adopted it in her home country to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. In 1921, Guerin joined forces with the Franco-American Children's League and the poppy fundraising project went national in France and America. Unfortunately, the alliance lasted only a year. Not one to give up, Guerin convinced the US-based Veterans of Foreign Affairs (VFW) to take up the cause. Today, VFW "Buddy Poppies," as they are now called, are assembled by disabled, needy, and aging veterans, helping them earn a living.
In 1968, the US Congress declared Decoration or Memorial Day as it was now called, a federal holiday and moved the date to the last Monday of May so that Americans could enjoy a three-day weekend. The change, which went into effect in 1971, has resulted in the holiday losing some of its significance. Kids think of it as the beginning of summer or the day when swimming pools open, while adults view it as an opportunity to host barbecue parties and shop for bargains.
Concerned that people were starting to reason behind the holiday, in December 2000, former US President Bill Clinton signed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.” The law urges Americans to observe a minute of silence at 3:00 pm (local time) to honor the heroes who have sacrificed their lives for the safety and freedom of our country. So, on May 29, set aside those burgers and root beer floats for a few minutes and reflect on all the brave men and women who are no longer around to enjoy the three-day weekend with their families.