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Our View: Have fun Memorial Day, but don't forget its purpose

Published: May 28, 2017 12:00 AM

Memorial Day is more than just a three-day weekend.

Although it did not become an official federal holiday until 1971, Americans have been honoring military veterans who died in wars since after the Civil War. Back then, the solemn occasion was called Decoration Day, when residents decorated the fallen soldiers' graves with flowers.

In 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, N.Y. as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, because it hosted an annual, communitywide event during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

But the nationwide day of remembrance goes back to 1868, when Gen. John A. Logan, leader of a Northern Civil War veterans organization, called for Americans to recognize the ultimate sacrifice that thousands of men and women made to keep the United States free.

He declared May 30 as a day "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion [Civil War], and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land."

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Ohio's own Gen. James A. Garfield, who became president in 1880, spoke at the first Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. By 1890, each northern state had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.

Although early observances specifically honored Americans who died in the Civil War, after World War I departed military personnel were honored regardless of the conflict in which they lost their lives. The holiday was observed on May 30 until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of Congress went into effect in 1971. It set aside the last Monday in May for the holiday.

Today, Americans turn out in droves to watch parades and attend ceremonies at cemeteries, and also to spend time with their families and friends and herald the coming of summer. Many families still place flowers on their lost military loved ones' graves, and organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion place flags on the graves.

Although Memorial Day can be a day of fun for Americans, the reason for the holiday should not be forgotten. It is a time to reflect on the service and sacrifices of military men and women. So even if you don't attend a parade or a ceremony, reflect in your own way.


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