River City Jules: Looking back on Memorial Day
Memorial Day, originally called “Decoration Day” (not for its three-day furniture sales but for the decoration of soldiers’ graves), traces its roots back to May 1, 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s subsequent assassination, when recently freed slaves in South Carolina and their supporters gathered in Charleston to honor Union soldiers who had perished while being held there as prisoners of war.
The ceremony was simple. Flowers and music highlighted the event, a tradition that spread rapidly in the North.
Within one generation, Decoration Day had been adopted by all northern states, with parades dating back to 1867 and early hot dogs hitting Coney Island in the 1870s before eventually making their way to grills nationwide.
Apparently still reeling from the Union victory, the South approached Decoration Day a little differently. And by “differently” I mean they refused to acknowledge it, choosing instead to honor fallen Confederate soldiers and their (lost) cause.
Within a mere 50 years or so, however, Memorial Day was celebrated with relatively more unified spirit nationally, just in time to come together to fight in World War I.
Also within those 50 years, the blueprint for modern Memorial Day celebrations was laid as Heinz introduced Coney Island’s hot dog to its ketchup, French’s added yellow mustard and Anheuser-Busch began brewing its Budweiser line of beer.
The first Indianapolis 500 raced its way into the hearts of horsepower-loving Americans on Memorial Day in 1911. Ray Harroun set the record for being both the first and the slowest winner in history.
Still lightyears ahead of the horse and buggy of his ancestors, Harroun completed the 500-mile race averaging 75 mph. (The fastest winner to date traveled those 200 laps at 186 mph, a speed that would have made our trip to Yellowstone last summer infinitely more tolerable, particularly through southern Wyoming.)
Another 60 years would pass, however, before Memorial Day would come to be established as a national holiday in 1971 to commemorate those brave men and women who died defending and protecting our country. In that time, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon established the standard — challenged by Snooki and friends but not yet overturned — for the ultimate beach party.
With its institution, Memorial Day weekend has come to signal the opening of pool season, family vacations and the countdown to Will Smith’s annual blockbuster film.
Since the Civil War, for which Memorial Day was originally created, millions of Americans have given up their lives in combat, and over a million more stand ready, right now as you read this, to do the same in spite of our 50 shades of passion for acronyms (omg!), Twinkies and reality TV.
And for them, I could not be more grateful.
Dedicated to the brave who, for centuries, have kept us living in the land of the free.