Poppies and Politics: The History of Memorial Day

It wasn’t always barbecue and booze.
Poppies and Politics: The History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day wasn’t always about barbecue and booze (although those things have some morbid origins -- we’ll get to that). It was a day for honoring casualties of the Civil War, so it was as politically fraught as anything involving the Civil War, and some people will still get mad at you if you appear to be having too much fun.

It’s Part of an Ancient Custom

Graveyard with flowers

(Anton Darius/Unsplash)

The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers goes back to Ancient Greece, when it was believed that if the flowers took root and grew, it meant the soldier’s soul had found happiness in the afterlife. It’s a nice thought, but it’s also just how flowers work. The fact that it made the graves smell better also helped.

Tons of People Claim to Have Invented It

Pie with 1 candle

(Michal Balog/Unsplash)

Ancient Greece aside, Memorial Day was officially first celebrated in Waterloo, New York, but there are people who will physically fight you about that. About 25 different cities claim to have held the first Memorial Day ceremony, but the truth is that it was just kind of something everyone started doing in the springtime in the late 1860s. There are only so many ways to commemorate a war.

People Even Fight About the Longest Continuous Celebration

Officially, the oldest Memorial Day celebration that’s never skipped a year has taken place in Ironton, Ohio since 1868, but towns in Pennsylvania and West Virginia claim they first held their celebrations a year earlier. These are towns you’ve never heard of, so maybe we should just let them all have this.

It Was About the Civil War -- Until It Wasn’t

Union reenactors

(Chris Chow/Unsplash)

The American practice of decorating soldiers’ graves rose out of the end of the Civil War, mostly because there were just suddenly a lot of soldiers’ graves everywhere. It was considered an event specific to that war for the next fifty-ish years, until World War I brought a fresh influx of dead soldiers and people realized they were probably going to have to keep doing this indefinitely.

There’s Northern-Southern Tension

Confederate reenactors

(Chris Chow/Unsplash)

As heated as debates about the origins of Memorial Day get, you can imagine how much worse it was at a time when the country was officially divided into teams. Specifically, many Southerners believed the North was edging in on their day, so several states still celebrate a separate “Confederate Memorial Day.”

Decoration Day

It’s possible the South invented it, but the North filed the paperwork, with the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union veterans, declaring that “The 30th day 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.” He called it Decoration Day because he was a real literal-minded guy.

A Rose On Any Other Day


(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

May 30 was chosen, and events were always held in late spring or early summer, because it was a time when everyone could be guaranteed access to fresh flowers. After all, it would be pretty awkward to show up to Decoration Day empty handed. It may have also been because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle, because lord knows those people had enough to fight over.

Those Barbecues Have Morbid Origins


(Andrik Langfield/Unsplash)

For a lot of people, Memorial Day doesn’t mean much more than sleeping late and eating lots of smoked meat, but they’re getting into the spirit more than they realize. The Memorial Day barbecue harkens back to the earliest celebrations, when families enjoyed patriotic entertainment while they ate graveyard picnics. Weird how people don’t like to eat near corpses anymore.

It Took Decades to Become a National Holiday

Decoration Day wasn’t recognized as a federal holiday until 1938, even though by then, it had become commonly known as Memorial Day, presumably because it sounded like a day for throw pillow shopping. Congress is just so slow that things stop existing by the time they make laws about them.

Its Date Was Changed For Economy Reasons

Van on a road

(Martin Kallur/Unsplash)

By the time Congress got around to changing the name to Memorial Day 30 years later, they had a different reason for updating the law. They moved the dates of a bunch of holidays after travel organizations hounded them to create more three-day weekends that would encourage people to take road trips, hit the beach, and generally give them money. That’s why we celebrate on the last Monday in May instead of May 30: dolla dolla bills, y’all.

Servicepeople, Not Sports

Race car event

(Ayden Sutton/Unsplash)

Even before the legal commercialization of the holiday, people were getting mad about how unseriously others were taking it. The last straw for many of them was the advent of the Indianapolis 500, which was first scheduled to take place on Memorial Day 1911. The Indiana General Assembly even passed a law in 1923 to force it to reschedule, but it was vetoed by the governor.

There’s Still Controversy About the Date

The American Legion is still mad about the move to a three-day weekend for exactly the reasons it was created. Insisting that “the majority of Americans view Memorial Day as a time for relaxation and leisure recreation rather than as a solemn occasion,” they wrote a resolution in 2010 proposing “the ringing of the bells in our communities for one minute on traditional Memorial Day, May 30” to “help Americans to realize that the true purpose of this day is to pay tribute to those who have given so much for their country.” All they want is a little bell-ringing, people.

The Legally Obligated Moment of Silence

Person praying

(Benjamin Child/Unsplash)

In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which requires every American to drop their hot dogs and take one minute to acknowledge that it’s not actually a party day at three p.m. local time on Memorial Day. There doesn’t appear to be any record of enforcement, but you never know these days, so maybe take the time to not be a jerk anyway.

The Unknown Soldier Isn’t That Unknown

Every Memorial Day, the president places a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but at least one of those soldiers was totally knowable. The official story is that the man previously designated as the Vietnam Unknown, Michael Blassie, was mistakenly classified as unknown thanks to the miscalculation of his height and weight, but after he was exhumed and identified, the government was accused of covering up his identity because forensic science had advanced to the point that they didn’t have any Vietnam Unknowns.

The Commonwealth Stole Our Poppies


(Zhen Hu/Unsplash)

Although it’s more commonly seen on Remembrance Day in those countries that still bow down to the Queen, Americans are supposed to wear a red poppy on Memorial Day, thanks to an American woman. Professor Moira Michael was inspired to wear a red poppy by the John McCrae poem “In Flander Fields,” about poppies growing from a battlefield, and in true American fashion, she was determined to make everyone else do it, too. She convinced a Navy representative to convince the American Legion to adopt the symbol, which inspired a French woman named Anna Guérin to distribute them throughout Europe, Canada, Australia, and even America. Sure, we needed some help, but rejoice, Americans: This is something we actually did first.

Top image: Cristina Anne Costello/Unsplash


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