Did Decoration Day in the South Inspire Memorial 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.
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.
The Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day
Many people are confused about the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a remembrance of deceased military members that died while serving our country. Veterans Day is an opportunity to recognize all present and past members of the military, both living and dead.
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. 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.
Have you ever attended a Decoration Day in the South?
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Thelma Raker Coffone