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Natural Perspectives: Make it bloom this Memorial Day

May 27, 2010|Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray

This coming Memorial Day weekend is a three-day holiday. What this often means for most of the country is that it's time to dust off the barbecue and get ready for summer cookouts. Since we have that beach party thing going on all year in our wonderful climate, Memorial Day weekend is not such a dramatic transition into summer for us.

As we're sure you know, Memorial Day isn't a holiday that commemorates picnics. It's a holiday to commemorate our war dead. Many different communities lay claim to having established the holiday, and it likely had multiple origins as a nation began to heal and honor its fallen soldiers at the end of the Civil War.

One version is that the holiday began May 1, 1865, as a celebration to honor the completion of reburial of Civil War dead in Charleston, S.C. Mostly black Union soldiers who had been interred in mass graves were unearthed and reburied individually. An estimated 10,000 people, mainly black, turned out for a day of sermons, singing and picnics. The Civil War was over, and the slaves had been freed.

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A May 1866 celebration in Waterloo, N.Y., is also accredited with popularizing the tradition of decorating the graves of those who died in the Civil War. In 1868, May 30 was observed nationwide as Decoration Day. The purpose of the holiday was to decorate the graves of Union soldiers, usually with flags and flowers.

Not surprisingly, the holiday was not celebrated in many Southern states because only Union war dead were being honored. Southerners held their own celebration on a different date to honor their fallen soldiers. After World War I, the purpose of the holiday was changed to recognize and decorate the graves of all war dead.

By 1882, the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day, but the new term didn't become common until after World War II. When I was growing up, my grandmothers still referred to the holiday as Decoration Day. But Vic says that he only knew the holiday as Memorial Day.

In 1971, during the height of the Vietnam War, the date of the holiday was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May. Traditional observances of the holiday include visiting the graves of departed relatives, not just war dead, and placing flowers on the graves. Picnics and backyard barbecues are other traditions, as well as flying the flag. And since I'm from Indiana originally, I also associate the holiday with the Indianapolis 500 auto race.

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