Thursday, June 5, 2014

Not Everyone Goes to the Lake

VFW Honor Guard enters Macksville Cemetery

Many Americans look forward to the 3-day weekend at the end of May as a time to celebrate the beginning of summer, but the historic roots of the holiday are quite different.  Ancient customs of honoring soldiers and decorating their graves exist in many cultures.  "Jubilee Day" was held on Monday, May 16, 1783, in Connecticut to commerate the end of fighting in the American Revolution.  After the Civil War, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries in 1865 for the War dead, and specific observations in both the South and the North occurred during the years after the Civil War, observing the custom of cleaning and decorating cemeteries.  This custom became known as "Decoration Day," but by the 1880s the name had gradually begun to change to "Memorial Day."  Many communities, like my own childhood hometown, continued the use of the original term.  (See Memorial Day at Farmington Cemetery, 5-10-2012 and Guest Post by Misty Beck, 5/24/2012 in blog archives.)

Jubilee Celebration in St. John, KS Park

Because many communities observed some sort of ceremony or tradition, the origin of the first Decoration Day is uncertain.  However, a ceremony organized by teachers, missionaries, and Black residents of Charleston, SC, for the purpose of cleaning up and landscaping the burial field there in 1865 is often identified as the 1st Decoration Day.

Food is an important part of the Jubilee Celebration.

It was not until after W.W. II in 1967 that the name was official changed to "Memorial Day."  Ironically, it was one year later, on June 28, 1968, that Congress moved Memorial Day from the traditional May 30th to the last Monday in May, creating a 3-day weekend, a change that many see as diminishing the observance of the original purpose for the day.  Many Americans now take advantage of the 3-day weekend as an opportunity to travel to a holiday destination like the beach, a lake, or a mountain cabin, overlooking the significance of observing Memorial Day.

The  dusty/muddy town square of Isaac's time is now a park.

At the time Congress created the 3-day weekend, several states declined to adopt the changed date for Memorial Day, continuing to observe it on May 30th, but gradually all fifty states complied.  Seeing the shift away from Memorial Day observances, Senator Daniel Inouye, a W. W. II veteran, initiated an effort to return to the traditional observance, an effort he continued until his death in 2012, but the recreational holiday seems firmly established for too many people for the return to a day of remembrance and honoring those who gave their lives for their country to return as the universal practice.

Jubilee Celebration 2014

The traditional observations are not entirely forgotten, however.  Many cemeteries in the region where Isaac Werner claimed his homestead continue to conduct Memorial ceremonies, such as the ceremony performed by the local VFW in Macksville pictured in this blog illustrates.  One member of the honor guard is a 90-year-old W.W. II veteran, and the veteran who recites the traditional memorial pledge is 93.  The trumpeter who plays "taps" for the ceremony is a 2014 high school graduate and young children continue to offer poppies to those who enter the cemetery gates.

The fountain is popular with young & old.

Several communities continue patriotic parades and celebrations in the city parks, including the Jubilee Celebration in the St. John Park near the Stafford County Courthouse, the same county seat that Isaac Werner visited more than a century ago.

Many parade participants displayed flags.

Isaac's regard for Union veterans was complicated.  His hometown in Pennsylvania provided soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War, but there was also a strong contingency of Southern sympathizers and draft dodgers in his community.  (See How Far is Gettysburg, 5/24/2012 in the blog archives.)  Because Union veterans tended to remain loyal to Lincoln's Republican Party, in opposition to the People's Party that Isaac supported, he resented their political alliance and called them "moss-back Republicans."  However, Union veterans were also among his best friends, whom he respected.  Isaac never mentioned the observance of Memorial Day in his journal, but the old traditions continue to be observed in his community to this day.  (See  St. John Park, 6/20/2013, in the blog archives for the story and images of the old St. John town square and the creation of the park.)

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