Decoration Day, or what is now called Memorial Day is the day of remembrance for those that died in service to our nation. It’s hard to pinpoint a story as to its actual origin, as there are over two dozen cities and towns that lay claim to the topographic point of Memorial Day. There is also some evidence that points us in the direction of some organized womens groups in the South because they were decorating the graves of their fallen soldiers before the end of the Civil War. In fact, a hymn written by Nella L. Sweet and published in 1867, entitled “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping”, carried a dedication “To the Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead”.
If you were to ask when and where the official birthplace of Memorial Day is, you might be told that it was in Waterloo, New York, on May of 1966, by President Lyndon B. Johnson. But there is significant evidence that says it started before that date, time and year. It would appear that many towns and cities had either planned or spontaneous gatherings planned to honor the war dead in the 1860’s, and each of these events culminated into spurring General John Logan into giving his official proclamation in 1868 of honoring a serviceman’s death. General John Logan, was the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, and on May 5th, 1868 he proclaimed that Memorial Day was to be observed on the 30th of May 1868 by General Order No. 11. Flowers were to be placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington Nation Cemetery. While it is not important who was the first to proclaim the day of remembrance, because it is a day that was formed to reconcile and honor those that gave all.
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York back in 1873. And by 1890 it was recognized by all Northern States, while the South refused to acknowledge the day set aside and honored their dead on separate days until after World War I, when the holiday changed from honoring just those in the Civil War to honoring Americans fighting in any war. It’s now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in the month of May, and is included in the National Holiday Act of 1971, that ensures a three day weekend for Federal Holidays. However, several southern states have an additional and separate day for honoring the dead soldiers of the Confederate War. In Texas it’s on January 19th, while Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi honor the Confederate war dead on the 26th of April, May 10th in South Carolina, and June 3rd, which is also Jefferson Davis’ birthday in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Now that we know a bit about the history of Memorial Day, let’s take a look at why the red poppy is such a significant symbol of the day. You might notice that close to and on Memorial Day you can purchase a fake red poppy. Here is a bit about why that flower is so momentous to Memorial Day.
It is well known that the the winter of 1914-15 was an extremely cold winter. However, the spring was warm around the region of Ypres in Belgian Flanders, and the months of April and May were unusually warm. Farmers were plowing their fields close to the front lines, and new life was beginning to grow. One of the plants that began to pop up in huge clusters on and around that battle zones the red poppy, or corn poppy.
The field poppy is an annual plant which flowers each year between the months of May and August. The seeds of the poppy are disseminated on the wind, but don’t necessarily germinate at that time and can, in fact, lay dormant in the ground for years if the ground is undisturbed. But if the ground is disturbed in the early spring, the seeds will germinate and the poppy will grow and produce beautiful red flowers.
That is exactly what happened on the front lines in Belgium and France. Once the ground was disturbed by the fighting the seeds of the poppy that had been lying dormant in the ground began the germination process and during the warm weather of spring and summer of 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918 they flowered. The field poppy was also blooming in parts of the Turkish battlefields on the Gallipoli peninsula when the ANZAC and British Forces arrived at the start of the campaign in April of 1915.
In May of 1915, a Canadian soldier by the name of John McCrae composed a poem following the death of his friend and fellow soldier. He had noticed how the poppies flourished around the disturbed ground of the battlefields and graves. The first lines of the poem hold some of the most famous lines of a poem written during the time.
Here is the poem written by John McCrae in May of 1915:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scare heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
I ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
The origin of the red poppy being used as a remembrance is credited to Miss Moina Michael, an American woman. Moina Michael is referred to as “The Poppy Lady” due to the following events.
On Saturday morning on the 9th of November in 1918, just two days before the Armistice was declared, Miona Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters in New York. She was working in the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall, which was a reading room, and a place for United States Servicemen to gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went overseas for service.
The Gemot was very busy that day due to the fact that the Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress at the headquarters. During the first part of the morning a young soldier passed by Moina’s desk and left her the Latest November edition of the “Ladies Home Journal”. When she found a few moments to herself she picked up the magazine and leafed through it. When she came across a page that grabbed her attention with its vivid color illustration and a poem that was entitled “We Shall Not Sleep”, which is an alternative name to Colonel John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields”. The poem was published after Colonel John McCrae’s death of pneumonia, he died on January 28th of 1918.
John McCrae’s poem inspired Moina to write a reply with her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith”. Here is her reply:
We Shall Keep the Faith
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
it seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of flowers bloom above the dead
In Flanders Fields
And now the Torch and Poppy Red<
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for Naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
After writing the poem, she then conceived the idea to wear the red poppies on Memorial day to honor those who died serving their nation during war. She was the first person to wear the red poppy and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers using the money she raised to benefit servicemen in need. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans organization to nationally sell poppies.
The traditional meaning and observance of Memorial day has become diminished over the years. Many Americans have appeared to have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day making it into a holiday of Barbecues and parties. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored and have even fallen into neglect. Most people have even forgotten the proper etiquette for the flag. While many towns still hold parades, many have put that tradition aside. Some people even think that the day is to honor all the dead, not just those fallen in the service of our country. This is not the case. That day is to remember our fallen. And with that…Thank you now and then for your service.