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We can’t tell you when and where Memorial Day began. Several cities vie for the honor: Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; Columbus, Georgia; and Waterloo, New York. Waterloo was decreed to be the site of the first Memorial Day by Congress and by President Johnson in 1966. Wherever it began, it grew out of the ancient custom of decorating the graves of those who died in battle. In fact, it was first called Decoration Day, and the name Memorial Day wasn’t official until 1967.
Memorial Day isn’t meant to honor all veterans. It’s dedicated to the men and women who died serving their country in the Armed Forces. The flag flies at half-staff in the morning, then is raised to the top of the pole as a reminder to us, the living, that it’s up to us to stand up and carry on the struggle.
Picnics are a Memorial Day tradition. Especially in the South, families would picnic at the gravesites of their veteran dead on Memorial Day. Not long after the Civil War, the day was marked by patriotic speeches and concerts in the local bandstand. Today, the National Memorial Day Concert is held on the Capitol’s west lawn, and countless local concerts echo the theme of honor to our war dead.
Veteran organizations sell Memorial Day poppies as a fundraiser and a reminder. When you put that poppy into a buttonhole, remember how the custom began. Poppies grow quickly in disturbed ground and Canadian poet John McCrae wrote during World War I (the war to end all wars):
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; ...
… If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Whether it’s a day with parades, patriotic speeches and band concerts or a family picnic or a quiet meditation in a cemetery, Memorial Day is a holiday for all faiths, all ages, all political parties, in honor of the deceased veterans of all wars. It is a day when the nation comes together in somber remembrance of their sacrifice and vows to honor that sacrifice in the best of all possible ways—by continuing their dedication to the welfare of the country.