The History Of Memorial Day

Memorial Day brings to mind grilling and taking trips but there is a much deaper meaning and history to this holiday that often signifies the start of summer holidays.

In 1865, Henry C. Welles told fellow attendees at a social gathering that they should honor the soldiers that died during the Civil War by decorating their graves. Not much was done from that conversation but Mr. Welles did not let the thought die. During the next spring he brought the idea to the attention of the Seneca County Clerk, General John B. Murray. General Murray thought the idea was a good one so he helped to form a committee to make plans to beginning a day to devote to honoring the dead.

Honoring the dead now seems like a regular yearly occurrence, but it wasn't always so. When I grew up, each year we went to Decoration Day at the local cemeteries. We honored our families dead by decorating their graves with flowers and spending the day with family and friends. Although not all families choose to honor the dead this way, the decoration days of today are in many ways similar to a day long ago on May 5, 1866 when the town of Waterloo held their first Decoration Day.

This long ago Decoration Day was not for just family but for the entire town. The town pulled together in order to celebrate the patriotic spirit of those that fought so honorably to protect this great nation. The people worked diligently creating wreaths, crosses, and bouquets to decorate the graves of the veterans. The town must have looked like a celebration and morning combined with black streamers everywhere and flags flying at half-mast and draped with boughs of evergreens.

There was a parade, which went around to the three cemeteries that existed at the time. The procession went from cemetery to cemetery led by veterans marching to martial music. At each cemetery they would pause for lengthy speeches. The entire day was quite an impressive celebration. In fact, it was such a hit that they repeated the celebration on May 5, 1867.

Although this was a recurring celebration, there was no official recognition of this day of honor for the veterans. The General Order No. 11 issued by the first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John A. Logan, on May 5, 1868 changed this. Starting with the 1868 celebration, Waterloo changed the date of its celebration to May 30, to coincide with the other communities.

One hundred years after Mr. Welles first mentioned the need for a day to honor the deceased veterans, a committee was formed in Waterloo to make plans for the Centennial Celebration of what is now known as Memorial Day. Although each year, Waterloo celebrates with a parade and speeches, the Centennial celebration should be special. After much hard work and exhausting research, Waterloo was declared the birthplace of Memorial Day. The timing for this acknowledgment came at just the right time to make the Centennial celebration even more special.

In 1971, Congress finally declared Memorial Day a national holiday. It also changed the date of the celebration to the last Monday of May. Through the years the celebrations have often changed until in many areas, they do not even resemble that first celebration many years ago. The President of the United States signifies the observance of Memorial Day by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery. But that is one of the few outward appearances of the day that resembles that long ago celebration.

Many families spend the day having picnics or grilling at home. Some travel for trips or enjoy a weekend at lakes and beaches. Some will gripe about the fact that gas was cheaper just the day before. Others will wonder why they are fighting the traffic just to get to a celebration that they are not really in the mood for anyway. The children will be glad to see the day coming because it is a signal that summer vacation is just around the corner. Stores will be running ads for items for getting out and enjoying the great outdoors.

Somewhere a veteran will sigh and think what happened to the true meaning of this holiday. This holiday was started to honor those that fought so bravely to allow us the freedoms which we enjoy each day. Decoration Day no longer means a celebration to honor our military casualties. It is now called Memorial Day, so you would think that would make it easier to understand the true meaning.

But just like in everything else, you have to take the bad with the good. And not everyone has forgotten the true meaning of the holiday. Waterloo, New York still celebrates the day in a grand style that befits the true purpose of the day. Those that died in the fight to provide us with the country we have today deserve to be honored. The true meaning of Memorial Day just needs to be shared as often as the ads for the Memorial Day sales at the local stores. We can get back to our roots and enjoy the celebration of the dedication shown by those that died to protect our freedoms. We can show our respect for them and honor them in a way that befits the gifts that they have given us.

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