10 Things to Remember About Memorial Day

American flags are placed around the gardens at Boston Common in celebration of Memorial Day
American flags are placed around the gardens at Boston Common in celebration of Memorial Day
iStock.com/MichelGuenette

Memorial Day is much more than just a three-day weekend and a chance to get the year's first sunburn. It's a time to remember the men and women who sacrificed their lives for their country. Here are some facts to give the holiday some perspective.

1. Memorial Day began as a response to the Civil War.

Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which a total of some 620,000 soldiers died between both sides. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the country led to several spontaneous commemorations of the dead:

In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their fallen soldiers from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery.

In April 1866, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. In the same month, in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.

Waterloo, New York began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the "Birthplace of Memorial Day."

2. Major General John A. Logan made the day official.

General Logan, the speaker at the Carbondale gathering, also was commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868 "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."

The orders expressed hope that the observance would be "kept up from year to year while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades."

3. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day.

The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. The name Memorial Day goes back to 1882, but the older name didn't disappear until after World War II. It wasn't until 1967 that federal law declared "Memorial Day" the official name.

4. Memorial Day is more of a franchise than a national holiday.

Calling Memorial Day a "national holiday" is a bit of a misnomer. While there are 10 federal holidays created by Congress—including Memorial Day—they apply only to federal employees and the District of Columbia. Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day's pay.

For the rest of us, our holidays were enacted state by state. New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday, in 1873. Most northern states had followed suit by the 1890s. The states of the former Confederacy were unenthusiastic about a holiday memorializing those who, in General Logan's words, "united to suppress the late rebellion." The South didn't adopt the May 30 Memorial Day until after World War I, by which time its purpose had been broadened to include those who died in all the country's wars.

In 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

5. In 1868, future president James Garfield delivered a very, very long speech on the importance of Memorial Day.

James Garfield
Edward Gooch, Getty Images

On May 30, 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—which, until 1864, was Confederate General Robert E. Lee's plantation.

Some 5000 people attended on a spring day which, The New York Times reported, was "somewhat too warm for comfort." The principal speaker was James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, Republican congressman from Ohio and future president.

"I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion," Garfield began, and then continued to utter them. "If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung." It went on like that for pages and pages.

As the songs, speeches and sermons ended, the participants helped to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.

6. The first unknown soldier is no longer unknown.

"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." That is the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns, established at Arlington National Cemetery to inter the remains of the first Unknown Soldier, a World War I fighter, on November 11, 1921. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War subsequently were interred in the tomb on Memorial Day 1958.

An emotional President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment of six bones, the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier, on November 28, 1984. Fourteen years later, those remains were disinterred, no longer unknown. Spurred by an investigation by CBS News, the defense department removed the remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns for DNA testing.

The once-unknown fighter was Air Force pilot Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, whose jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972. "The CBS investigation suggested that the military review board that had changed the designation on Lt. Blassie's remains to 'unknown' did so under pressure from veterans' groups to honor a casualty from the Vietnam War," The New York Times reported in 1998.

Lieutenant Blassie was reburied near his hometown of St. Louis. His crypt at Arlington remains permanently empty.

7. The Vietnam veterans' rights group Rolling Thunder will make their final ride into D.C. in 2019.

Rolling Thunder members and motocyclists wait for the 'Blessing of the Bikes' to start at at the Washington National Cathedral, May 26, 2017 in Washington, DC
ANGELA WEISS, AFP/Getty Images

On Memorial Day weekend in 1988, 2500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C. for the first Rolling Thunder rally to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action or prisoners of war. By 2002, the ride had swelled to 300,000 bikers, many of them veterans. There may have been a half-million participants in 2005, in what organizers bluntly call "a demonstration—not a parade."

A national veterans rights group, Rolling Thunder takes its name from the B-52 carpet-bombing runs during the war in Vietnam. But 2019 will mark the group's final ride, due to the logistics and expense of staging the event. "It's just a lot of money," Rolling Thunder co-founder and former Army Sergeant Artie Muller told Military.com.

8. Memorial Day has its own set of customs.

General Orders No. 11 stated that "in this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed," but over time several customs and symbols became associated with the holiday: It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.

Taps, the 24-note bugle call, is played at all military funerals and memorial services. It originated in 1862 when Union General Dan Butterfield "grew tired of the 'lights out' call sounded at the end of each day," according to The Washington Post. Together with the brigade bugler, Butterfield made some changes to the tune.

Not long after, the melody was used at a burial for the first time when a battery commander ordered it played in lieu of the customary three rifle volleys over the grave. The battery was so close to enemy lines, and the commander was worried the shots would spark renewed fighting.

The World War I poem "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. In 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for "keeping the faith with all who died." The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

9. Some states still celebrate a Confederate Memorial Day.

Several Southern states continue to set aside a day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day. It's on the fourth Monday in April in Alabama, April 26 in Georgia, June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee, the last Monday in April in Mississippi, May 10 in North and South Carolina, January 19 in Texas, and the last Monday in May in Virginia.

10. Each Memorial Day is a little different.

Ricky Parada sits at the grave of his little brother Cpl. Nicolas D. Paradarodriguez who was killed in Afghanistan, at Section 60 on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery on May 28, 2012 in Arlington, Virginia
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

No question that Memorial Day is a solemn event. Still, don't feel too guilty about doing something frivolous (like having barbecue) over the weekend. After all, you weren't the one who instituted the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. That credit goes to Indianapolis businessman Carl Fisher. The winning driver that day was Ray Harroun, who averaged 74.6 mph and completed the race in 6 hours and 42 minutes.

Gravitas returned on May 30, 1922, when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. Supreme Court Chief Justice (and former president) William Howard Taft dedicated the monument before a crowd of 50,000 people, segregated by race, and which included a row of Union and Confederate veterans. Also attending was Lincoln's surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. "is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday."

This post originally appeared in 2008.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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