Although it didn’t become an official national holiday until 1971, Memorial Day is rooted in an American tradition that dates back to the years following the Civil War. Often confused with Veterans Day, which pays tribute to all who have served in the United State Armed Forces, Memorial Day is intended to honor Americans who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. Memorial Day also marks the unofficial beginning of summer, and is one of the busiest travel days of the year. In fact, record numbers of people are expected to take to the roads this weekend, even as gas prices soar. To honor our fallen soldiers and help you make the most of the holiday, we’ve decided to share a few little-known facts about Memorial Day, and tips on what’s occurring in the Bay Area this weekend:
It was first known as Decoration Day: When it ended in the spring of 1865, the Civil War had claimed approximately 620,000 American lives, with a large percentage of these deaths caused by disease in captivity. In the years that followed, mourners in various cities and towns began a springtime ritual of visiting the burial sites of loved ones they had lost to pray and decorate their graves with flowers, flags and wreaths. In 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed that the upcoming date of May 30 was to be a national day of remembrance for “decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” The first “Decoration Day” took place at Arlington Cemetery and was attended by more than 5,000 mourners.
The actual birthplace is disputed: According to generally accepted accounts of the Memorial Day tradition, the holiday grew out of a grassroots expression of mourning in many areas of the country. So it may be surprising to hear that people from Columbus, Mississippi to Boalsburg, Pennsylvania continue to claim their city as its actual place of origin. Notwithstanding these assertions, the village of Waterloo, New York is officially credited as the birthplace of Memorial Day. For an interesting take on this subject, check out the New York Times’ article “Birthplace of Memorial Day? That Depends Where You’re From.”
Why it is a May tradition: As explained by Reader’s Digest, it is believed that late May was chosen because flowers would be in bloom throughout the country by this time of the year. In keeping with this theme, the poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance after World War I, when it was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields.” Even today, a meaningful way to honor those who lost their lives in military service to the U.S. is to wear a red crepe paper poppy. These artificial flowers are handmade by veterans and distributed throughout the country in exchange for donations that directly benefit disabled and hospitalized veterans. You can learn more about this custom at the website for Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.
What’s happening in the Bay Area: Not thrilled with the idea of paying top dollar for fuel this Memorial Day weekend and prefer not to drive too far? Local festivities abound from Carnaval San Francisco to Mushroom Mardi Gras in Morgan Hill, but there are also a number of events offering meaningful ways to honor our fallen soldiers as well as enriching experiences related to our nation’s history. Two of the most popular include the Presidio Memorial Day Commemoration and the 37th Annual Civil War Battles & Encampment at Roaring Camp Railroads in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which features a ride in through ancient redwood forests with glimpses of Civil War skirmishes on Bear Mountain, and is capped off with a Chuck Wagon Barbecue. For a roundup of great events taking place throughout the Bay Area, check out the San Francisco Chronicle.
Planning to hit the road this weekend, whether on an out-of- town adventure or to attend an event in another part of the Bay? Before you fill up your gas tank, check out www.gasbuddy.com, or download the mobile app, to find the best prices on fuel in every city or zip code. Not able to get out to a commemorative event but still want to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice? Don’t forget to pause on Monday for the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time to pay tribute with a moment of silence or by listening to “Taps.”