Traditionally, Memorial Day has been a time in our nation’s history for remembering and honoring those who have given their lives in the service of their country. However, either by design or by happenstance (it depends upon whom you believe), the true meaning of the day has largely been lost, only to be replaced by one that is more directly tied to profits rather than patriotism. Memorial Day sales proliferate much like weeds in an unkempt yard.
According to some sources, Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, but it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It’s history dates back to Civil War days, and it was initially recognized as Decoration Day, because of the practice of decorating the graves of deceased soldiers with flowers. At some point, the name was changed to Memorial Day. As a youngster, the former was the only name by which I knew it. Probably because my dad was a member of the American Legion, I mostly remember it as the day on which artificial poppies were offered in return for donations (mostly coins) that people deposited in little round canisters. The vets would walk up and down the block at intersections, shaking the cans and collecting money. The origin of this practice goes back to 1915.
‘We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.’
She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms. Michael. When she returned to France she made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. In 1921, the Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help.
“Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.” (1)
With each passing year, the meaning of Memorial Day seems to grow less and less significant—much like our nation itself, which has been diminished on the world stage. We can only hope that the trend will be reversed before it’s too late.
Please join with me this Monday to pause and consider the true meaning of Memorial Day. Say “Thank you for your service” to those servicemen you encounter, not just on Memorial Day, but every day of the year, and pay respect to those who have died in the service of our country by displaying the American flag at half staff on this solemn day. It is the least we can do.