Friday, May 24, 2013

Decoration/Memorial Day

Memorial Day was celebrated on the 30 of May when I was growing up.  We had the day off from school and would go to downtown Evanston for a Memorial Day parade, which involved marching bands and marching Scouts. Veterans groups went to cemeteries and left small American flags on the graves of war veterans.

Sometime in the 1970's Memorial Day changed into the Memorial Day weekend, and becoming a three day weekend with Memorial Day celebrated on the last Monday in May. The parades disappeared, and the Memorial Day Weekend became the unofficial beginning of summer.  Many of people went out of town and those who stayed celebrated summer with barbecues and parties. 
Memorial Day changed again when the United States became involved in the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Patriotism is stronger, the parades returned, and the observances have a more serious tone.

When I was a little girl, I remember my grandmother talking about Decoration Day.  She called it that up through the 1960's and maybe even longer than that.   For her, the purpose of that day was to go to the cemetery, clean up a bit and decorate the graves of family members with flowers, usually geraniums, which could survive the summer.  My mother told me that all the family graves were visited and decorated, and it was a process that might last several days since there were many cemeteries to visit.  When my grandmother  and her sisters became old, her nieces who lived in the Minneapolis area took over the job.
Decoration Day

I never gave a thought to what Decoration Day really was, learning later that it came about after the Civil War in the 1860's. People would go to cemeteries at the end of May  and decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in that war.  Over 600,000 men died in the Civil War, so there was a lot of decorating to do.  In the Southern states, the graves of Confederate dead were decorated on another day.
Qing Ming Festival, China

The idea of going to cemeteries on a specific day is an ancient one. The Chinese have  the Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping festival, celebrated  April 4 and 5 in 2013. Families go to cemeteries, clean up the family tombs, decorate them, and leave offerings for their ancestors. 
In Mexico, The Day of the Dead is celebrated on October 31.  Families go to the cemeteries, bringing food and flower offerings for their ancestors, and have a  picnic in the cemetery. Memorial altars called offerendas are set up in their homes.  These Mexican customs predate the European conquest of Mexico in 1519, and were practiced by the Aztecs. 
Mexican Cemetery on the Day of the Dead
My most memorable Memorial Day was in 1984 when my son David was born.  We brought him home from the hospital on Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend. The whole family came over to see the baby.  So every Memorial Day weekend, I think about David's first Memorial Day weekend.