Decorating the graves of loved-ones, soldiers, and the forgotten, has been observed for thousands of years all around the globe. In the U.S., Decoration Day refers to two things: the origins of our modern Memorial Day, and a current holiday that is mainly observed in the South.
History of Decoration Day
Credit for the origins of Decoration Day partially lie with more than a dozen individuals and communities, but it is indisputable that the roots of our current Memorial Day came from the South’s Decoration Day. Even before the Civil War, the Southern U.S. held a grassroots custom, or tradition, each spring as an event in many public and private circles to honor their deceased loved ones at their final resting places. Wikipedia states that it is believed that the Decoration Day tradition “began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the ‘Memorial Day’ idea.” It was much more widely observed in the South than similar traditions in the Northern States. Then came the Civil War in which approximately 620,000 or 2% of our nation was killed.
Driven by the strong feelings that divided our nation, and promoted by a few key individuals, Decoration Day began to draw a much larger following. It evolved to focus mainly on the graves of their Civil War dead. Sentiments in our country were strong, and in those few years, there began such a groundswell of support on a national level, that it was officially designated by General John A. Logan in May 1866 as an annual event that our nation should observe. His widow, in her autobiography indicated that the inspiration for his pronouncement originated from his admiration of the South’s tradition. She wrote that Gen. Logan stated, “it was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South in perpetuating the memory of their friends who had died for the cause they thought just and right.” The first national celebration of Decoration Day took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried. Shortly thereafter, some Americans, including high officials in the U.S. Government, began to refer to it as Memorial Day. Its focus, though, still lingered on the Civil War. The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs states, “By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation.”
After WWI, the federal government went further and declared the last Monday in May to be called Memorial Day as a day to honor all Americans who have died in military service for the United States and to decorate their graves. The most recent official acts came in 1968 and in 1971 when Congress declared Memorial Day a National Holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May. Some Southern States, determined to keep Decoration Day alive, have continued to honor it on behalf of fallen Confederate Soldiers on an additional day, usually between April and June. In some states, that day is designated as Confederate Memorial Day, Confederate Decoration Day, Confederate Heroes Day, or just Decoration Day. In many of those states and localities, public employees have the day off, and in others they do not. Besides focusing mainly on Confederate war dead, many, however, also use that day to adorn the graves of any and all loved ones, or even entire graveyards. Additionally, in many of those same communities, and some communities not even in the South, they set aside yet another day for the decoration of any graves in general.
To Never Forget
Decoration Day still carries several levels of deep meaning to those who observe it distinctly from Memorial Day. For many Southerners, besides just paying tribute to the fallen from the Civil War, Decoration Day is a reminder for future generations to never forget.
Whether it’s Memorial Day or Decoration Day, the tradition of decorating graves has now become a respected part of the fabric of America. We at Nursery Enterprises would also like to express our love and appreciation to those who came before us, allowing us to live the fruits of their sacrifices.