Memorial Day: Which War?


Memorial Day was not universally recognized as a shared American Holiday until after World War I. But that’s not how it started in the United States. Here’s the background.

Civil War

Following the American Civil War or the War Between the States as it was known in the South, various locations began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags, as I’ve written previously. This began in the mid to late 1860s across the country, as almost every community had been touched by loss from the country-wide conflagration. Over 600,000 men and women had died, more than any American war, including the combined losses suffered in WWI and WWII — we were both sides of the war.

decoration-dayIn 1868, by the proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union), these decoration services were unified on May 30 as Decoration Day. 5,000 mourners met at Arlington National Cemetery to place flowers and ribbons on the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Union veteran Generals and future Presidents James Garfield and Ulysses S. Grant were in attendance.
GettysburgThe Gettysburg Battlefield, following Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address there, became a popular location for memorializing the 3,500 fallen, beginning in 1868. The Gettysburg community has since had a parade there for a century and a half. In 1882, the holiday was first called Memorial Day. However Southern states, feeling that the national celebrations emphasized Union soldiers, had their own separate memorial services to honor the fallen Confederate soldiers held on different dates in each state.

poppyWorld War I

During the next great war that America fought, World War I, over 130,000 American died. This war effectively unified both North and South in a common shared experience of Memorial Day. May 30 was now a holiday to recognize all fallen American soldiers back to the American Revolutionary War.  It differs from Veterans Day, signified by the poppy, in that it uniquely honors fallen soldiers rather than surviving veterans. Hence, we fly our flags at half-mast until noon.

My old sociology professor Robert Bellah at Berkeley taught that America is unique in that it has a “civil religion” with a shared non-denominational quasi-religious faith distinguished by fundamental beliefs, values and rituals — especially rituals — that are parallel to one’s own chosen religion. He said that

“Memorial Day has acted to integrate the local community into the national cult.”

If so, Memorial Day has become one of the most sacred of these national rituals, a holiday for all Americans.

20th Century

It became a federal holiday only as recently as 1971 when its date was moved from May 30 — originally chosen for the day flowers optimally bloom — to the last Monday in May, to create a 3-day weekend. Some have claimed that this change along with the addition of golf tournaments and car races has eroded the remembrance of the holiday’s original purpose.

How do you celebrate Memorial Day?

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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History of Towel Day


May 25 celebrates Towel Day as a day to honor Douglas Adams, the author of the five (or six) book trilogy Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Originally created in May of 2001 to mark the passing of English science fiction humor author Douglas Adams, the day is set aside for fans of his writings to carry a towel throughout the day in honor of the author. Why a towel? I’ll explain below.

I had the honor of meeting Douglas Adams almost two decades ago when he was speaking at a special Sun Microsystems event. I recall at the time noting that he talked at 2400 baud, meaning he spoke the English language faster than any other person I had heard before. Erudite, clever, and mind stretching — his talk was much like his writings, at times laugh-out-loud funny. He has appeared on Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV show, and wrote a skit for the album to the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He had also written for the TV show Doctor Who.

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History of Star Wars — 40 Year Anniversary

Star Wars NovelHISTORY OF STAR WARS — 40 Year Anniversary

In 1976 I picked up a new science fiction novel called Star Wars by George Lucas. I did not know at the time that it was ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, a popular sci-fi writer. The following year, on May 25, 1977, the movie debuted in only 40 theaters around the country, with little of the advanced fanfare we’re used to today. But word of mouth spread fast, and when I heard it was showing at the Coronet Theater in San Francisco, I went with my buddies. The line to get in stretched around the block, even during the first week. When I saw the Star Destroyer come across the screen after the title scroll, I yelled out “I’m impressed!”

On my way out of the theater, I was stopped for a radio interview. “Did you think it was fun?” I replied “Yes” but it was so much more. I would return several times to see it again. Star Wars ran there at the Coronet for 29 weeks. The new Star Wars movie opens in over 10,000 theaters in the US. How times have changed.

The original Star Wars was not expected to be a success, far from it. The studio was not optimistic, hence only 40 opening theaters. The head of 20th Century Fox at the time was Alan Ladd, Jr. He agreed to produce the film with an initial $8M budget because he was impressed with George Lucas’ 1973 American Graffiti. Even Lucas was not hopeful. Instead of going to the opening he went to Kauai, Hawaii with his friend Stephen Spielberg to commiserate. While there, they conceived of Indiana Jones, named after Lucas’ dog, which was subsequently filmed there, and would make Harrison Ford a much bigger star than he would have been as just Han Solo.

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History of Mother’s Day

History of Mother's DayHISTORY OF MOTHER’S DAY

The person most active initially in opposing the celebration of Mother’s Day is the very person who started this holiday in the US. Here’s how it happened.

Anna Jarvis’ mother died in 1905 and in her honor Anna held a memorial in 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia. She continued to campaign for national recognition of this day through the assistance of John Wanamaker and the efforts of Bethany Temple Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The first state to recognize Mother’s Day was her own West Virginia in 1910. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the “second Sunday in June” as Mother’s Day in 1914. The spelling was significant: Anna Jarvis did not spell it “Mothers’ Day” because she intended, as she said it should “be singular possessive, for each family to honor its mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers of the world.” Nevertheless, in more modern times both “Mothers’ Day” and “Mother’s Day” appear for this holiday.

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History of Cinco de Mayo

History of Cinco de Mayo CINCO DE MAYO

Cinco de Mayo is frequently regarded as the Mexican equivalent of the United States 4th of July. This is incorrect: it is the equivalent of the “5th of May” in the Spanish language. Another misconception is that this has something to do with Mayonnaise. That too is a bum spread, as the condiment had its origin with the French, who will come into our story later. Nor does it have to do with County Mayo in Ireland, though we’ll make sure the Irish get into this story at some point. Rather, the “Battle of Cinco de Mayo” or specifically the Battle of Puebla, occurred on May 5, 1862.

Juarez Background

President Benito Juarez, who had been Zapotec Indian Minister of Justice in Juan Alvarez‘ cabinet in the 1850’s, entered Mexico City on January 11, 1861, and promptly expelled the Spanish minister, the papal legate, and members of the episcopate. Additionally, he took steps to enforce the decrees of 1859, dis-endowing and disestablishing the church. He could not have known then that almost a century later, “antidisestablishmentarianism” would become the longest word in the English dictionary. Although Juarez was recognized by the United States and had received both moral and military aid from the US, there were over $80,000,000 in debts at that time to Europe alone. The Mexican Congress on July 17, 1861, decreed the suspension for two years of interest payments on the external national debt, and three months later a convention occurred between Great Britain, France, and Spain calling for joint intervention in Mexico.

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