Saturday, May 28, 2022

Still Life with Robin: They Used to Call It "Decoration Day"

Image: Wikimedia - Creative Commons
by Peggy Robin

Monday, May 30 is Memorial Day. It's the last Monday in May,  designated by Congress in 1971 to be the day of the holiday. Before  that, Memorial Day was always on May 30, no matter what day of the week it was. This was before the invention of the 3-day weekend that came about when Congressional legislation moved many of our federal holidays to the nearest Monday from the traditional fixed date. 
Of course, if you're old enough (as I admit to being), you'll remember a time when Memorial Day might fall on a Tuesday or Wednesday or any other day of the week.. I'm not old enough to remember when this holiday was called "Decoration Day" but I do remember that my parents kept calling it by that name, long after its official name was changed to Memorial Day.
Why was it called "Decoration Day"? Because the solemn remembrance of our war dead included a ceremony of "decoration" of their graves with flowers and flags. When I was a young child, I thought they meant party decorations. I hoped there would be balloons and streamers. My father,  a World War II veteran (wounded in the Battle of the Bulge) corrected me (quite sharply, I recall), when I advanced that idea. That exchange has stayed with me, after all these years..
These days, of course, Memorial Day is mainly observed with mattress sales and discounts on electronics and home goods. There are pool openings, and barbecues, and sports events. The historic traditions and the solemn observances that go on at military cemeteries around the country touch a relatively small percentage of our population today.
When looking up some facts about Memorial Day for this column, I came across this quotation from the Union general who first called for the establishment of a national day to honor the civil war dead (from's website on the history of Memorial Day):
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.
In case you were wondering, yes, it is the same General Logan, who is represented in bronze astride a horse in the center of the circle where Rhode Island and Vermont Avenues and 13th Street would otherwise intersect. 
None of this is to say that we should not enjoy our picnics and vacation trips on this holiday weekend. It's just a reminder that at some point during the three days off work, it would be good for each of us to pause, at least for a few moments,  to reflect on the origins and the purpose for which this day was set aside.

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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