The following editorial is from The Compass, diocesan newspaper of Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was written by Patricia Kasten, the newspaper’s associate editor.
Memorial Day, despite the late start to spring weather, is upon us. While in many respects this holiday is the unofficial start of summer, it still is — first and foremost — a time to remember our war dead. (Veterans Day, on Nov. 11, honors all veterans, living and deceased.)
There will be parades and speeches, cemetery services and Masses in our parishes, prayers and singing of patriotic songs. A wreath will be laid at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery and flags will fly at half-staff from dawn until noon.
All of these serve to make us pause, even as the day is in danger of becoming just part of another long weekend of summer relaxation, to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could enjoy many more summers of fun and freedom.
There was once a time when Memorial Day was called “Decoration Day.” There has been some rivalry over where the event started — with Waterloo, New York, being declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. However, we do know that women started the tradition of decorating the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. That conflict was, and remains, the deadliest war in our nation’s history, with estimates of 750,000 soldiers dead.
In 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, General John Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) issued a proclamation to mark “Decoration Day” on May 30, 1868. This first national event took place in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. General Logan chose the May 30 date because there was no particular historical event, or battle in the war, associated with it.
Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday in May, following Congress’ passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971. However, there is a move to return the Memorial Day celebration to May 30, and set a three-day weekend near Armed Forces Day, marked on the third Sunday of May. The first Armed Forces Day was proclaimed by President Harry Truman on May 20, 1950, after the Department of Defense was created in 1949.
While Memorial Day began for Civil War casualties, when the world entered the “war to end all wars” (now called World War I), Memorial Day’s focus shifted to honoring soldiers killed in any U.S. wars.
From World War I, we also gained the official flower of Memorial Day: the paper (or plastic) red remembrance poppy. Today these are distributed by the American Legion Auxiliary. The red poppy is used in several countries besides the United States to honor their war dead: including Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In France, the memorial flower is the bleuet de France, the blue cornflower.
The remembrance poppy traces back to the 1915 poem, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, which many of us memorized in school. This poem became an inspiration to Moina Michael, a teacher who, in 1914, had been in Europe as the war broke out. She later volunteered in war efforts in New York. Enchanted with McCrae’s poem, she decided to create silk poppies to raise funds to assist disabled veterans. In 1922, the poppy was adopted by the American Legion Auxiliary and, a year later, by the Royal British Legion.
In Christian tradition, the red poppy is a symbol of sacrifice, especially of Christ’s sacrifice for us. When we wear a poppy, attend a Memorial Day Mass or service or pause for the national moment of silence held at 3 p.m. local time on May 28, we will honor the sacrifice paid by all those who chose to follow Christ in “laying down their lives for their friends” — even friends they never met in this world.
That’s the reason for Memorial Day. The picnics, parties and fun are for the rest of summer.
The views or positions presented in this or any guest editorial are those of the individual publication and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicPhilly.com, Catholic News Service or of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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