What Memorial Day means

We’re coming up on Memorial Day here in the U.S. This weekend, beaches will open, dormant pools will have their covers removed and their chlorine balanced, and people will fire up their grills. It’s the unofficial start to summer.

But that’s not really what Memorial Day is all about. Let’s put a proper photo here and get into the history and meaning.

According to All About History, Memorial Day was first observed in 1868 to commemorate the Civil War dead. In reality, it’s probably a little older — and more complicated — than that.

Shortly after the Civil War (or the War Between the States, or, if you want to get even more Southern, the War of Northern Aggression) — on April 25, 1866 — women in Columbus, Miss., laid flowers on the graves of soldiers on both sides. A couple of years later, in 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, the head of a unit of Union veterans, declared May 30 Decoration Day, in honor of the war’s dead.

There were reports, however, of women decorating soldiers’ graves during and even before the Civil War.

By the 1880s, Decoration Day had become widely known as Memorial Day, and after the first World War, it became a commemoration of the dead of all wars America had been involved in, not just the Civil War.

In 1971, the observance of Memorial Day was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

There are still separate Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies: The fourth Monday in April in Alabama; the last Monday in April in Mississippi; April 26 in Georgia; May 10 in the Carolinas; June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee; January 19 in Texas; and Virginia also celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the the federal holiday, the last Monday in May.

Poppies play a strong role in commemorating Memorial Day. They’re a resilient flower, and they grow in harsh climates, even if they have to lie dormant for several seasons, and they were found growing in northern cemeteries when Lt. Col. John McCrae of the Canadian Army paid his respects. From his poem, “In Flanders Fields:”

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Pioneer Press recalls Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Memorial Day reminder at Arlington National Cemetery that peace comes at a cost.

We must always remember that peace is a fragile thing that needs constant vigilance. We owe them a promise to look at the world with a steady gaze and, perhaps, a resigned toughness, knowing that we have adversaries in the world and challenges and the only way to meet them and maintain the peace is by staying strong.
That, of course, is the lesson of this century, a lesson learned in the Sudetenland, in Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, in Cambodia. If we really care about peace, we must stay strong. If we really care about peace, we must, through our strength, demonstrate our unwillingness to accept an ending of the peace. We must be strong enough to create peace where it does not exist and strong enough to protect it where it does. That’s the lesson of this century and, I think, of this day.

So sure, open up your grill and invite some friends over. But fly your flag at half staff until noon, as is the custom, and pour one out for our fallen.


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