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Did Decoration Day in the South Inspire Memorial Day?

Thelma is an award-winning writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She enjoys writing about rural America, especially Appalachia.

An antique postcard of Decoration Day

An antique postcard of Decoration Day

Decoration Day in the South: A Centuries-Old Tradition

Since before the Civil War, it has been a tradition for many Southerners, especially those in the southern Appalachian mountains, to celebrate Decoration Day. Each year, family members come home from afar to gather at their family cemeteries on a specified Sunday in spring or summer to honor their dead relatives. Everyone helps to clean the cemetery, straighten old tombstones, and decorate the graves with flowers, hence the name Decoration Day.

After the cleanup is complete, a religious service is held. Preachers offer up prayers for ancestors that have left this earth and for family members who are still among the living. Then it's time for the guitars, banjos, harmonicas, and fiddles to come out to play some good old-time gospel songs like "I'll Fly Away," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and many others.

One of the best parts of Decoration Day is "dinner on the grounds." This is what people in other parts of the country call a potluck dinner with family members sharing a variety of favorite dishes. Makeshift tables are laden with a meal fit for a king. And no Decoration Day in the South is complete without ice-cold watermelon. This is just a brief glimpse of a tradition that has lasted for years and continues today.

Old postcard with American flags

Old postcard with American flags

Did These Celebrations Inspire Memorial Day?

It is thought by some that this yearly recognition of the dead by southerners helped inspire the annual salute to the fallen soldiers of the Civil War—both Union and Confederate—that eventually evolved into the Memorial Day celebration of modern times.

The practice of recognizing the Civil War's dead began not long after the war ended and was observed on May 30th each year. The occasion was known as Decoration Day, but gradually, over the years, the name would change. By the end of World War II, it was commonly called Memorial Day.

In 1967, the name was officially changed by the federal government to Memorial Day, and it became a time to reflect on all of the servicemen from every branch of the military who died while serving. As part of Memorial Day observances, volunteers place small American flags at each grave in our 131 national cemeteries as well as in other graveyards.

Controversy Surrounding Memorial Day

In 1968, a law named the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the celebration of four different holidays from their original dates to Mondays to give workers three-day weekends.

The holidays affected were:

  • Washington's Birthday, which was moved from February 22nd to the third Monday in February;
  • Memorial Day, which was moved from May 30th to the last Monday in May;
  • Columbus Day, which was moved from October 12th to the second Monday in October; and
  • Veterans Day, which was moved from November 11th to the fourth Monday in October (note that Veterans Day was subsequently moved back to November 11th).

Many veteran organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), were offended by the movement of Memorial Day merely to create a three-day weekend. Some have said that it slights the memory of the servicemen that gave their lives for their country, while others feel that as long as the observance is made, the date doesn't matter. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) made several unsuccessful attempts prior to his death in 2012 to change the observance date back to May 30th.

Honoring Our Dead

We will never know for certain if the southern tradition of Decoration Day was the inspiration for Memorial Day, but the similarities do exist . . . whether it is dinner on the grounds and family barbecues, decorating a cemetery with flowers and flags, or the singing of gospel tunes and playing "Taps" on a trumpet.

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Regardless of the date, both are celebrated, and the intention is the same—to honor the dead, whether they are your kinfolk, the servicemen who gave their lives for our freedom, or both.

© 2013 Thelma Raker Coffone

Comments on May 28, 2018:

My Grandmother was born in 1883 and live next door to us. We always went to the cemetery and put flowers on relatives graves. My Grandmother always called it Decoration Day. They did have a Military Service but I always thought it was to put something on the graves of those you loved and the Military. The graves of those we loved should be remembered along with all Military personal that have died.

Vicki on May 27, 2018:

My grandmother always called today Decoration Day!

RTalloni on May 26, 2014:

Congratulations on your holiday Hub of the Day award for this look at Decoration Day/Memorial Day. No matter what we call the day, taking time to remember those who sacrificed their lives in service to our country and to teach others more about history is important.

Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on May 26, 2014:

Yes, ThelmaC, thanks for the link! I'm glad we linked up our hubs!!!

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on May 26, 2014:

Thanks for the history lesson on Decoration Day, ThelmaC. I don't recall ever hearing about it up north where I grew up. This was a great way for you to commemorate Memorial Day. Congratulations on HOTD. Voted up and interesting.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 26, 2014:

mary615 your vote of confidence means a great deal to me. Thanks for sharing my hub!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on May 26, 2014:

Congrats on this timely Hub being HOTD since today is Memorial Day! I'm from the south and I don't remember the day being called Decoration Day, but everyone got together for parades and cook outs.

Very informative Hub. Voted UP and shared.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 26, 2014:

Patty Inglish I have admired your work on here for years and your comments mean so much to me. I am thrilled with my first Hub of the Day. Thanks for reading my work.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 26, 2014:

Victoria Lynn, thank you my friend for the nice comment. Hope this honor has also brought some readers your way via the link in my hub about your Memorial Day article.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 26, 2014:

The Dirt Farmer (Jill) you would notice the color of the flowers. lol

I really enjoy reading your hubs!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 26, 2014:

rebeccamealey thank you my fellow north Georgian for your nice comments!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 26, 2014:

ChrisMcDade8 thanks for sharing with us your memory of your family visiting the family cemetery on Memorial Day. I appreciate your comment!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 26, 2014:

Delores Monet I also always wondered what the big deal was about moving some holidays to Mondays. It makes perfect sense to me.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 26, 2014:

swilliams thank you very much for the compliment of displaying historical events with words and art. My love for history must be shining through!

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 26, 2014:

In my neighborhood as I grew up, several older residents called Memorial Day "Decoration Day" and now your Hub lets me know why. I like the idea of gathering in the cemetery and cleaning and decorating it all together.

I remember when the Monday holiday changes occurred after 1968 and for me, it made no difference, because I had to work all the holidays anyway, especially in restaurant work. I do tire of all the special sales held on patriotic holidays, though.

Rated this Hub up and more and congratulations on HOTD.

Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on May 26, 2014:

Congratulations on Hub of the Day! Well deserved!

Jill Spencer from United States on May 26, 2014:

Hi ThelmaC! Congrats on HOTD! I'm from Appalachia, and back home folks still spend Memorial Day cleaning up family plots and/or putting flowers on the graves of family members. Later, we usually all eat together, picnic-style. I've noticed the past few years that because of the national emphasis on the armed forces that the flowers are often red, white and blue.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on May 26, 2014:

Very interesting. I think a lot of churches around here still hold their own Memorial Day on a Sunday in May, maybe or maybe not on the traditional Memorial Day weekend, so this theory certainly makes sense. Good job, and congrats!

Christine McDade from Southwest Florida on May 26, 2014:

Very interesting article. Growing up in the midwest, I was unaware of this tradition. However, I do have in-laws who have spoken of the tradition of going to the cemetery in their small towns on Memorial Day to honor those who have passed.

Thanks for the information. Voted up!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on May 26, 2014:

I can't believe that it was not until1967 that Memorial Day was given its official name. And I always wondered why people would argue about a holiday being moved to a Monday. With so many families living apart, in different cities, etc. this makes it so much easier for people to get together.

swilliams on May 26, 2014:

Hi Victoria! Your pics are classic you really have a gift for displaying historical events in a beautiful picture of words and art. Voted up!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 29, 2013:

Victoria Lynn I just checked out your hub on Decoration Day. You did a great job and I enjoyed your pics. I put a link on mine to yours and appreciate your offer to do the same for me.

I think the young people will want to attend once they are a little older. As their parents and other family members pass away, they will see it as a way to be close to their spirit, if only for that one day each year.

Check out my new hub on Hummingbird Cake. I know an

Arkansas gal like you has eaten it before, probably on Decoration Day.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on May 28, 2013:

My pleasure Thelma! How are those GA mountains looking this late Spring?

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 28, 2013:

Alastar I always appreciate your comments on my hubs. Thanks for following me!

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on May 28, 2013:

Thank you for writing this fine article, Thelma. I believe the Southern Decoration Day did lead to Memorial Day, or at least could be considered the prototype for it.

Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on May 28, 2013:

Thelma, I just came from Decoration Day in my small hometown over the weekend. I've been going since I was a little girl! We decorate the graves and have a potluck in the cemetery. I always wonder if the tradition will die off once the older generation passes away. Not as many young people come anymore. It's neat to see all the townspeople I grew up with! I wrote a hub about my experiences with Decoration Day. I'm going to link yours to mine! :-)

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 27, 2013:

BobR thank you for your very nice comments and most of all, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE!

BobR on May 27, 2013:

Thanks for the article, enjoyed it very much. I am from the south, Georgia, but was away for twenty one years in the Air Force. I was always stationed either in the north, N.Y., Washington, Seattle, or overseas. I had never heard or have forgotten about Decoration Day. When I think about Memorial Day I am always emotionally effected for a short time. I am so thankful for all those that gave THEIR ALL so we could celebrate this day, and still BE FREE.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 24, 2013:

MizBejabbers you made my day! Thanks so much for your kind words.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on May 24, 2013:

What a great hub about an old Southern tradition. I think every Southerner remembers Decoration Day, but I don't remember it being called that. I'll chalk that up to bad memory. I’m glad to read it because just this morning, Mr. B asked me what Memorial Day was. He was confused about the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. After reading your hub, I know now that I gave him the correct explanation. Thanks. Voted you Up ++

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 23, 2013:

Thanks for your comments Mark. As you and I have talked about before, we only live a few miles apart. We have Decoration Day in my town also but I had never heard of it before moving here 20 years ago. I lived in the south all of my life but wasn't aware of Decoration Day prior to moving to Georgia. Thanks for reading my hub and I enjoy following you!

Charles Mark Walker from Jasper Georgia on May 23, 2013:

A wonderful Southern traditions article Thelma. Many churches in our neighborhood still have decoration day.

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