Decoration Day: The beginnings and transformation of Memorial Day
By Patricia Baer
In doing a little research for something pithy to say about the upcoming holiday weekend, I came across the origins of Memorial Day. If I had ever known about them, I had forgotten. The day was originally known as Decoration Day, and it was “celebrated” by folks coming together at family graveyards to place flowers on tombstones.
The tradition started after the American Civil War as a remembrance of the war’s lost soldiers but also served as an opportunity for families to honor their ancestors and gather in a sort of reunion atmosphere, usually accompanied by a picnic.
I remember my grandmother and her sister buying flowers to place on their mother and grandparents’ graves for Memorial Day. I do not recall ever going with them, but I do remember thinking what an odd way that was to kick off the summer.
Like many people, I viewed the three-day weekend as the start of vacation season, three months of happy and carefree days with Labor Day being the dreaded end to it. I understood the holiday itself to be a day for honoring fallen soldiers but did not realize there had been this other aspect to it — the remembrance of relatives who had passed on — and assumed it was just a quirky thing my family did.
I will not be carrying on this tradition. I feel that with the reality of my aging extended family, I will be spending enough time in cemeteries in the future. I have never been comfortable with the rituals of death and its customs.
I prefer to remember people I cared for as they were when they were alive. I keep my memories of them alive in my heart and through shared reminiscing with others.
Maybe that is why the holiday has evolved over the years to be more of a celebration away from the family gravesites. Maybe for some a joyful backyard picnic gives more energy and longevity to the spirit of those ancestors than a solemn visit to their tombstones. Maybe others, like me, would prefer to celebrate how lucky we were to have our time together instead of viewing it as something that has been lost.
I still have not learned how the holiday evolved into a three-day sale at Macy’s, though. Maybe the linen sale idea came out of the need for blankets at the original “dinner on the ground” family picnics. While I will be skipping the “traditional” purchase of new bedding this year, I will take a moment out of the summer opening day celebrations to flip through some old photo albums and do a little reminiscing about those who are no longer able to join us for the cookout.
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