My Memorial Day in Marshall: Part 1, The History of Memorial Day

My neighbors, the Commers, along with many others, decorate their lawns for Memorial Day.

My neighbors, the Commers, along with many others, decorate their lawns for Memorial Day.

Yesterday, I honored those individuals in the military (past and present) at my hometown’s American Legion post for our Memorial Day services.  Today’s papers are full of articles and photos of others who also celebrated May 30th as I did.

Before getting to my personal photos of Memorial Day, let me introduce its history to my Chinese readers and others interested.  After researching a bit on the Net, I found out quite a bit of information which I myself wasn’t even aware of.  Read on!

How did Memorial Day get started?

 Three years after America’s Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.  Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

Local Observances of Memorial Day

 Even before the nation’s capital took on this special memorial to fallen soldiers, many local observances throughout the country had already been commemorating those who died in the war.   Decoration Day then took on a new identity, being called by many Memorial Day.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.

It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.

In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.

What Do We Do on this Day? Memorial Day Services and a 3 p.m. Moment of Silence

To ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance.

The purpose of this act was to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.

The National Moment of Remembrance urges all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.

The Official Flower for Memorial Day: The Poppy

The Poppy, from my mom's garden

The Poppy, from my mom’s garden

It is a custom on this day for us to wear paper poppies (a poppy is a kind of red flower) to show the sacrifice of service made by our veterans.  These red crepe paper poppies are handmade by veterans as part of their therapeutic rehabilitation. They are distributed across the country in exchange for donations that go directly to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans in our communities.

The poppy, made by our veterans for Memorial Day and Veterans Day

The poppy, made by our veterans for Memorial Day and Veterans Day

The poppy itself was chosen due to an epic battle at Flanders Fields in Belgium where many men died and were buried during World War I.

After the battle, a Canadian soldier named Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae noticed how quickly red poppies grew over the graves of his friend and other fallen soldiers. That inspired McCrae to write the poem “In Flanders Fields” May of 1915.

McCrae was a soldier, physician and writer. As it turns out, he wasn’t happy with his poem. Legend has it he threw it away and another soldier plucked it out of the trash.

The poem soon began to circulate throughout magazines and newspapers, becoming quite well-known.

In 1918, Moina Michael read the poem and later started a movement to sell red silk poppies as remembrance flowers on Memorial Day. The money raised was donated to veterans in need.

Just before Memorial Day in 1922, the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) became the first veteran’s organization to sell poppies across the United States. Within a couple years, it was called the Buddy Poppy program and ever since then, paper poppies have been made by disabled vets.

Before My Part 2 Entry: The Poem that Immortalized the Poppy in America

In Flanders Fields (originally entitled “We Shall Not Sleep”)

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.

–Lt. Col. John McCrae



About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
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1 Response to My Memorial Day in Marshall: Part 1, The History of Memorial Day

  1. Kate Lindsay says:

    Interesting details….I didn’t know either.

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