Clicking on the Web: Memorial Day history, traditions

Memorial Weekend is typically a signal for the beginning of summer, but we should not forget its real meaning and purpose, that being to remember our many service men and women who have served our country and also to remember our many family members and friends who have passed before us.

Howard Lestrud
Howard Lestrud

Growing up on a small farm near Austin, I recall the tradition my parents had of decorating the local cemeteries.

I especially remember my mother taking the most beautiful petunias of all colors and planting them at the gravesite of her parents in Albert Lea.

Our nation’s cemeteries come alive with color as we near the Memorial Day weekend.

The floral colors symbolize the colorful spirits we remember in our family members and friends who have gone before us.

During the past several years Judy and I have joined her family to pay tribute to her mother and grandparents at a small northern Iowa town cemetery.

We find the best shade tree we can find for all of our family members, 20-plus, and then listen intently to the music and messages provided in tribute to our veterans and others.

One of my most memorable Memorial Day weekends was observed by son Troy and me at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. in 1979.

Troy and I often talk about the memories we have about watching soldiers standing watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

We also remember wreaths being placed at the tomb. Arlington Cemetery is especially colorful on Memorial Day weekend but it is equally colorful the year round.

As Memorial Day approaches, I love to visit the history of Memorial Day and even remember my parents calling it Decoration Day.

Let’s take a trip to the History Channel website and its pages on Memorial Day history and tradition.

Go to

Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.

Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades.

Read this synopsis about Memorial Day from the History Channel website:

Early Observances of Memorial Day

The Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history, requiring the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.

By the late 1860s Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous different communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings.

Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo — which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866 — was chosen because it hosted an annual, communitywide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

Decoration Day

On May 5, 1862, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.

The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

Many Northern states held similar commemorative events and reprised the tradition in subsequent years; by 1890 each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday.

Many Southern states, on the other hand, continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.

Evolution of Memorial Day

Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War.

But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.

For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day.

But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971.

The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Memorial Day traditions

Cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades each year, often incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations.

Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Americans also observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials.

On a less somber note, many people throw parties and barbecues on the holiday, perhaps because it unofficially marks the beginning of summer.

While at the website, take time to view some interesting videos and slideshows:

• History of Memorial Day, video

• Memorial Day, photo gallery

• A Memorial Day Tribute, video

• America and the Civil War, video

• Blacks in the military, video

• Civil War 150, interactive

Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time.

Looking ahead to Memorial Days through the year 2016, we see these dates chosen to observe Memorial Day: 2013, May 27; 2014, May 26; 2015, May 25 and 2016, May 30.

Find more historical information and historical links at the Wikipedia website.

It can be found at

Enjoy the holiday and its significance throughout the year.

Editor’s note: Howard Lestrud is ECM online managing editor.