10 Things About Memorial Day

Earlier this year, I did a 10 Things post about Valentine’s Day. It’s a widely celebrated holiday in many countries and has evolved quite a bit over the years. This month, I decided to tackle Memorial Day. Though many countries have something similar to honor deceased soldiers, the day it’s celebrated in the United States can and does vary from other countries. The how and the why it got started is also different.

Since most of my 10 Things posts are specifically themed to help writers think about ways to round out their worldbuilding, I thought this might be an interesting way to take another look at a holiday. Conceptually, it is celebrated in other countries, but not usually at the same time and certainly with different traditions. Are there multiple cultures, real or imagined in your fiction? Do they have holidays that differ? Perhaps theirs are based on the local dominant religion or celebrations of important victories in national history. Some holidays may be shared in totality, others in concept, others not at all.

And yes, I know I could use a specific religious holiday(s) that just passed to make my point, but I’ll be honest. I don’t know enough about that holiday to do it justice and there are some things that online research can’t completely explain. If any of my readers know and celebrate such holidays and would like to volunteer to share some thoughts with me, I’d be grateful.

Anyway, here are ten things about Memorial Day:

  1. It was first known as Decoration Day. Starting as far back as 1864, widows would march together to the local cemetery to decorate the graves of deceased Civil War soldiers. While many different towns claim to be the first to celebrate Decoration Day, congressional recognition is given to Waterloo, New York who first organized a community-wide service in 1866. The holiday was first granted to living soldiers as a time to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s wage on May 30, 1868.
  2. While Waterloo, NY is credited with the first organized service event, there is historical evidence that a year earlier on May 1, 1865 (two weeks before the Civil War officially ended) a group of freed slaves organized to rebury the dead of fallen Union soldiers in proper grave sites.
  3. It wasn’t technically a “national holiday” until the 1970s. Because it was first recognized as a day for soldiers (and eventually other government employees) to visit and decorate the graves of their friends or loved ones as a way to honor them, it wasn’t actually a holiday for civilians. The state of New York was the first state to recognize the holiday for all citizens in 1873. Other states began to follow suit, though many southern states didn’t officially recognize it until after the first World War. It was actually a state holiday that was celebrated by all the states on the same day. In 1971 Congress moved official observance of the day from May 30 to the last Monday in May (Uniform Monday Holiday Act) and made it a federal holiday.
  4. After World War I, it changed from a holiday to honor the dead from the Civil War to a holiday to honor fallen American soldiers from all wars. Evidence of this is the Biker Rally that began in 1988 and continues in Washington, D.C. each year as a way to bring attention to soldiers still “Missing in Action” from Vietnam.
  5. Officially, American flags should be lowered to half-mast until noon on Memorial Day and then returned to full mast. At 3 PM (local time), there is supposed to be a moment of silence to honor those men and women who lost their lives serving their country in military conflicts.
  6. Though Decoration Day was never limited to only the graves of Union soldiers after the Civil War, many states of the former Confederacy still chose to celebrate their fallen on a separate day–a day that is still on the calendar in many southern states. It is a different date for each state that celebrates it and while it is on state calendars, it is not widely celebrated. I’ve lived in the south the vast majority of my life and until it became part of a bigger heated discussion in a news story (about symbols, traditions, and monuments that still honor the Confederacy), I honestly didn’t know that my state even had such a holiday on the calendar. Don’t misunderstand, I’m certain there are people who do celebrate it, I just don’t personally know any (that I’m aware of).
  7. Again, though Waterloo, NY is credited with the first organized community event for Decoration Day (and history shows us that it was only the first recognized event involving white people–see point 2), earlier in 1866 a celebration occurred in Illinois and another in Mississippi (smaller event) where flowers were added to the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers as a way to promote regional healing while honoring those who lost their lives.
  8. About 5,000 people attended the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868. Arlington National Cemetery sits on land that was confiscated from the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. When other local military cemeteries were close to being full, the Lee estate (known as Arlington House, which also once belonged to the family of George Washington and had been passed down via inheritance and marriage), was deemed suitable and desirable as a new location. However, after the war, the heir of the estate sued the government for confiscating the land without due process. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in his favor and the land was returned in 1882, after it had been used as a military cemetery for almost twenty years. He agreed to sell the land back to the government for $150,000 (about $3.5 million today) and signed the agreement with then-Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln. Let me break that down. The son of the leader of the entire Confederate military sat in a room to sign documents with the son of the president who had been assassinated by Confederate sympathizers after the end of the war, and money exchanged hands. That is some Netflix worthy drama right there. I want to know what each man said to the other that history chose not to record. I bet shade was being thrown left and right.
  9. On Memorial Day of 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan gave a moving speech as a set of bones were added to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. The tomb was first erected for the remains of a World War I soldier who could not be identified. It is guarded every hour of the day as a way to honor the soldier. Over the years other unidentifiable remains have been added in their own crypts within the tomb. However, the bones added on that Memorial Day in 1984 spurred an investigation that wouldn’t be complete for fourteen years. DNA testing was eventually able to identify the soldier and his remains were reburied near his hometown. His original crypt in the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier remains empty.
  10. Not everyone observes Memorial Day with solemnity. In 1911, the Indianapolis 500’s inaugural race was scheduled on Decoration/Memorial Day. The state of Indiana had observed the holiday since approximately 1890. An attempt to bring back the gravity of the day happened in 1922, when that was the day chosen to dedicate the Lincoln Memorial (with a crowd of 50,000 people present).

When your characters celebrate a holiday, do they know why they celebrate it? Why it’s that day? Do they care? These are things that can help shape both the world you are creating and the personality of your characters.

Think about it. And maybe, if you’re in the U.S., you’ll get a little extra writing time in on this year’s Memorial Day.