Memorial Day 2014: Arlington is 150 and ‘Star Spangled Banner’ is 200

White gravestones by the hundreds on grassy field with a flag next to each gravestone

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Arlington National Cemetery. Photo in public domain courtesy of Fotopedia

MONDAY, MAY 26: Next year, America will mark the 150th anniversary of the first “official” Memorial Day observance—but this year marks two other major anniversaries: 2014 marks both the 150th anniversary of the Arlington Cemetery and the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Events are kicking off in Washington, D. C. and throughout the nation, including parades, speeches, decorated memorials and more. Families and friends are gathering for beginning-of-summer barbecues that have become a natural part of the holiday.

As America’s economy improves, AAA predicts soaring numbers of travelers for this holiday weekend. Perhaps you’re one of the 36.1 million travelers who will spend Memorial Day weekend more than 50 miles away from home, according to AAA, or you may be taking in events in your hometown. But the overall focus of this holiday is supposed to be America’s fallen heroes—so, keep reading to learn more about the real history of this often-misunderstood holiday.

25th Anniversary of National Memorial Day Concert

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the National Memorial Day Concert, which takes place in Washington, D.C. and is carried on PBS. Check the website for local listings—and remember, it takes place the evening before Memorial Day, on Sunday, May 25.

EVENTS COAST TO COAST

Italian sausages on the grill

Will you be barbecuing this Memorial Day? Photo by Steven Depolo, courtesy of Flickr

Wherever you go, keep safety tips in mind if you’ve hit the road for the holiday weekend: Today.com offers plenty of tips, as do several publications and even the U.S. Government.

What, exactly, is going on across the nation?

Aside from thousands of local events …

  • Disney Parks are launching a bi-coastal, all-night party, with a Rock Your Disney Side event that urges visitors of all ages to dress as their favorite Disney hero or villain.
  • Many historic sites, from Williamsburg to landmarks in Washington, D.C., will be offering special deals before the summer crowds set in, so check online listings.
  • And last, but certainly not least, many will uphold a tradition that was part of the first Memorial Day observances, long before holiday-weekend travel became the norm: friends and family gathering at the gravesite of a deceased loved one lost in service, or at a family burial ground. Rather than barbecuing in a backyard or park, some families actually bring their food to the cemetery, enjoying a potluck “dinner on the ground” while remembering lost ancestors. Of course, this isn’t allowed everywhere—so, if you like this idea, check cemetery policies in advance.

Looking for great recipes to kick-start your Memorial Day?

Start with Parade, which offers 10 side dishes for Memorial Day grilling, then check out Food Network and Taste of Home for complete menus. The sophisticated palate will appreciate recipes from Food and Wine, and home cooks everywhere can turn to AllRecipes. Those looking for a healthier alternative to the traditional comfort foods of Memorial Day can look into the suggestions from Eating Well.

MEMORIAL DAY & DECORATION DAY:
WHAT’S THE REAL HISTORY?

Want to learn more about the early history of “Decoration Day”? Check one of our earlier Memorial Day stories or this story about Decoration Day’s origins.)

Black-and-white cartoon of boy and girl sitting in graveyard in period clothes

An early political cartoon for Decoration Day, by John T. McCutcheon. Photo released via Wikimedia Commons

Long credited to women’s groups, the start of the first “real” Memorial Day is now being corrected in history books, publications and archives, largely due to the concentrated efforts of Yale historian David Blight: The first Memorial Day did, in fact, take place in May 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, and was organized by African Americans and former slaves. After tireless research, Blight argues that the nation’s first Memorial Day observance was reported on in the Charleston Daily Courier, and took place on May 1, 1865. As of 2014, Wikipedia reports:

During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves.Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.

From that first ceremony in 1865, Decoration/Memorial kinds of celebrations spread like wildfire: In 1868, General John Logan issued a proclamation for a “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide, and it was observed for the first time that year, on May 30. By 1869, memorial events were held in 336 cemeteries. Michigan became the first northern state to declare “Decoration Day” an official state holiday, and by 1890, every other northern state had done the same. The name gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day,” and the official name was declared by Federal law in 1967. One year later, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving Memorial Day from its traditional date of May 30 to the last Monday in May.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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