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11:05 AM, Posted by Editorial Staff, No Comment

May 30, 2010

Happy Memorial Day to all of our readers. Memorial Day has become so synonymous with barbecues, picnics, a three-day weekend and the unofficial kickoff of summer that many people seem to have forgotten what Memorial Day means: the remembrance of those who died in war.

Now that we've cleared that up, there's another battle to consider: Where and how exactly did Memorial Day begin?

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, it was originally called Decoration Day, and the story goes something like this:

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans -- the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) -- established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared Decoration Day should be observed on May 30, and It's believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

"The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C."

Then VA acknowledges that a smattering of communities had also already begun holding their own tributes for the fallen. The first place cited is Columbus, Miss., where, on April 25, 1866, some women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers who had been killed at Shiloh.

The VA website notes that the cities of Macon and Columbus, Ga., also claim to be the birthplaces of Memorial Day.

As do Richmond, Va., and the village of Boalsburg, Pa., which claims its first Memorial Day took place in 1864, two years before anyplace else. In Carbondale, Ill., the Department of Veterans Affairs writes of a cemetery stone that includes a chiseled proclamation that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866.

In fact, some 25 locations lay claim as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Though it would appear that many thoughtful ceremonies independent of one another probably occurred in many small towns and cities, when it comes to sheer Memorial Day mojo, it's hard to top Waterloo.

Located in upstate New York about an hour east of Rochester, Waterloo was declared the official Memorial Day birthplace by Congress and President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. It was based on a ceremony that occurred on May 5, 1866, where local Civil War vets who had died in the war (57 in all) were honored with a somber day reflection, closed businesses and flags flown at half-staff.

Folks in Waterloo always support their town's claim by suggesting how earlier observances in other places were either one time, informal or not community-wide.

(Incidentally, after World War I, the idea of Memorial Day was expanded to honor those who perished in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress.)

Gary Westfall, the Waterloo village administrator, has spent all of his 64 years there, and he says that no matter what any other place claims, his hometown is the one and only rightful owner of the Memorial Day birthplace title.

"We have a Memorial Day Museum," he says. "Plus we're the only place to have recognized Memorial Day continuously every year since 1866. It defines our community. But most importantly, we recognize it on May 30 every year, no matter what day it falls on. We don't care so much about a relaxing three-day weekend as we do about the somber nature of the day -- the true meaning of Memorial Day."

And it's hard to challenge that.

Some trivia: Why is the poppy the symbol of Memorial Day? It started with a poem penned by a Canadian army colonel during World War I. Col. John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" was published in December 1915. The ode reflected McCrae's grief over the huge loss of life on the Flanders battlefields, situated between western Belgium and northern France. One part described the poppies growing among the graves:

"We cherish too, the poppy red

"That grows on fields where valor led,

"It seems to signal to the skies

"That blood of heroes never dies."

Two women -- Anna E. Guerin in France and Moina Michael in Georgia -- were so inspired, they thought the flowers should be used as a remembrance symbol of the war. They sold artificial poppies to aid orphaned war children (and other war victims).

In 1922, Michael thought the flowers would make an effective universal symbol for the holiday. With assistance from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, her idea became reality.

Written by: Chris Epting

Chris Epting is the author of "Roadside Baseball" and “James Dean Died Here" along with 15 other books. He’s the national spokesman for the Save-A-Landmark program and hosts the syndicated radio show, "The Pop Culture Road Trip."
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