For most Americans, Memorial Day marks the end of spring and the unofficial start of summer. But for history buffs and fans of tradition, there’s much more to the story and meaning of Memorial Day. For example, you might be aware that Memorial Day once went by a different name: Decoration Day.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is Decoration Day?
- Decoration Day Traditions
- When and How Did Decoration Day Change to Memorial Day?
So, what was Decoration Day, and how did it eventually become what we know as Memorial Day? We’ll explore the history of Decoration Day, as well as how it differed from our modern-day holiday, below.
What is Decoration Day?
Decoration Day is the original title of the holiday we now call Memorial Day. In many ways, Decoration Day was similar to Memorial Day. But in other key ways, the original May 30th holiday was different and unique.
Although Decoration Day has become Memorial Day in most of the country, Decoration Day still exists. Many communities in the Southern United States still observe Decoration Day and its longstanding traditions.
The purpose of Decoration Day was to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. That includes patriots who died fighting on both sides of the war: for both the Union states (the North) and for the Confederacy (the South).
As its name suggests, Decoration Day was a date dedicated to decorating the graves of those fallen soldiers. Citizens would take the time each Decoration Day to visit their local military cemeteries.
They’d bring flowers, flags, and other symbolic decorations to adorn the headstones of all those who died fighting in the war. Many cities and small towns also held ceremonies or parades on Decoration Day, similar to those held on Memorial Day.
How it came to be
Decoration Day officially began three years after the end of the Civil War in 1868. An organization of Union soldiers, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), established the holiday.
The GAR put forth the idea for Decoration Day as a time for the whole nation to clean and decorate the graves of the war dead. The idea was, specifically, to decorate the graves with flowers. On May 5, 1868, the Commander in Chief of the GAR put out this notice:
“The 30th Day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
The date of May 30th was chosen for Decoration Day as a time of year when flowers would be in full bloom.
Communities had been decorating soldiers’ graves for years, even before the end of the Civil War. But the first official celebration of the new holiday, Decoration Day, was held in Arlington National Cemetery. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the ceremony.
Decoration Day Traditions
We’re all aware of Memorial Day traditions: picnics, pool parties, and cookouts. And because Decoration Day has always fallen at the beginning of summer, those traditions have historical roots.
But there are also some unique traditions associated with Decoration Day that don’t always transfer over to Memorial Day festivities. Here are some examples of rituals related to Decoration Day.
The main tradition of Decoration Day is adorning soldiers’ graves with flowers. Although real flowers are generally plentiful at the end of May, the floral tradition also includes silk and crepe flower arrangements.
Traditionally, women and girls would create paper roses, irises, and morning glories for weeks or months in preparation for Decoration Day. You can follow their example by crafting colorful bouquets or purchasing silk and paper flowers.
Another important aspect of Decoration Day is cleaning up the cemetery before adding colorful and sentimental decorations.
You can follow this tradition by bringing cleaning supplies to a military cemetery near you (if allowed) or volunteering to help out with maintenance duties. Traditionally, families would dust off headstones and polish them with cloths and rags.
Another way to decorate the graves of military service people is with American flags and other tokens of national pride. After all, Decoration Day is a way to honor the soldiers who died fighting for their country.
Patriotism on Decoration Day also comes in the form of military tribute songs, which are often performed at services and addresses.
Prayers and hymns
The original Decoration day ceremonies, including the first observance at Arlington National Cemetery, heavily featured prayers and hymns.
At that original ceremony, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home recited prayers and sang hymns while walking through the cemetery.
Moment of silence
Decoration Day was originally dedicated to honoring military service members who lost their lives in war. But, as we’ll explore below, Decoration Day eventually changed into the new holiday of Memorial Day. As it did, some of the original meaning of the day was lost.
By 1996, a group of school children touring Washington D.C. was unable to define the purpose of Memorial Day. When asked, they responded that Memorial Day was “the day the pools open.”
Dismayed, the White House created the National Moment of Remembrance as an addition to Memorial Day. Each Memorial Day at 3:00 pm, Americans are encouraged to stop what they’re doing and take part in a moment of quiet remembrance.
By joining the National Moment of Remembrance, you can help restore the original meaning of Decoration Day.
When and How Did Decoration Day Change to Memorial Day?
Decoration Day was originally created to honor the war dead of the Civil War. But over the years, American citizens started memorializing the armed forces who fought in all wars on May 30th each year.
In addition to cleaning and decorating the gravesites of war dead, citizens started adding more commemorative events to Decoration Day. Speeches and parades, parties, and religious services started to become more prevalent, even where the tradition of grave-decorating fell by the wayside.
And as the meaning and purpose of Decoration Day changed, so did the name. By the late 1800s, many Americans were already referring to the holiday (unofficially) as “Memorial Day.”
Memorial Day addresses
During World Wars I and II, several military cemeteries were established in combat zones outside of the United States. Each of these overseas cemeteries became important locations for what became called “Memorial Day Addresses,” given by important U.S. delegates, including President Woodrow Wilson.
These Memorial Day Addresses, in addition to many other ceremonies carrying the title of “Memorial Day” helped change the name of the holiday amongst Americans.
Memorial Day celebrations, including Memorial Day Addresses and Ceremonies at home and overseas, continued to take place on May 30th annually for many years.
But in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, establishing the official holiday of Memorial Day. It officially set the date of Memorial Day as the last Monday in May.
Observing Decoration Day
Memorial Day is the perfect opportunity to invite family and friends over for fun in the sun. But it’s also important to keep the meaning of Memorial Day in mind. Understanding how Memorial Day got started as Decoration Day in the United States often helps bring that purpose to the forefront.
And although Decoration Day went mostly by the wayside in the 20th century, it’s still celebrated in many southern states. There, you can still participate in traditional gravesite religious services and addresses, as the community coming together to care for their military cemeteries.
If you want to add historical value to your Memorial Day observations, you can take part in the Decoration Day traditions described above. Or, you can simply take a moment to share the history of Decoration Day with your Memorial Day guests.
- “Memorial Day.” Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/may-30/
- “Memorial Day History.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. www.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/history.asp
- Brown, Paul. “‘Decoration Day': The South Honors Its Dead.” NPR. 28 May 2011. www.npr.org/2011/05/28/136742729/decoration-day-the-southern-way-to-honor-the-dead
- From Decoration Day to Memorial Day: An American Tradition for Nearly 150 Years.” American Battle Monuments Commission. 23 May 2014. www.abmc.gov/news-events/news/decoration-day-memorial-day-american-tradition-nearly-150-years