Decoration Day in the South is a memorable tradition

Published 11:48 am Tuesday, May 23, 2023

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A number of cemeteries in the area – among them Lakeview and Walnut Mountain – will have Decoration Day this weekend. Decoration Day, the predecessor of today”s Memorial Day for most Americans, is a day set aside to honor fallen American veterans, but the holiday itself has its origins in the pre-Civil War South when families, and even whole churches, honored the dead in late spring or early summer. Decoration Day occurred in the rural South’s calendar after spring planting, but before long summer days required extensive hoeing and maintenance of the crops and livestock.
Because the burial sites were “spruced up” and flowers were placed on the graves as “decorations,” the day was called Decoration Day. It would occur anytime in the late spring or early summer. Memorial Day, itself, once popularly called “Decoration Day” by many, grew out of the older observance of southern Christians remembering deceased family and church members.
Parts of the rural South still celebrate Decoration Day in its traditional southern form. The literal definition of Decoration Day or “Decoration,” as it is sometimes called, taken from the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, is: “An occasion on which a family or a church congregation gathers … to place flowers on the graves of loved ones and to hold a memorial service for them. Traditionally this involved singing, dinner on the ground as well as a religious service.” Such will happen at the Walnut Mountain Cemetery this weekend.
Some call it “Cemetery Day,” others “Decoration Day. Today, most of us call it Memorial Day. While too few people today remember the dead, Decoration Day often provided the opportunity for family members to hold reunions during the Memorial Day weekend. Hardly an entirely somber event, Decoration Day always balanced reflection and celebration. Fellowship and a communal meal took place in tandem with the respectful graveside service.
It is one of those customs which has for the most part faded away. For most Americans, Memorial Day weekend is just another day off to enjoy a three-day weekend.
The actual designation of Memorial Day is to honor those who died serving their country in the military. It had its roots in Decoration Day.
This weekend, veterans groups throughout the country will be placing flags on the graves of veterans who can still be identified. In Carter County, a large number of persons have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
We are also delighted knowing there will be people visiting and possibly decorating the graves of family members who may not have been in the military, but who in their own way contributed and made personal sacrifices to make possible the freedoms and blessings we enjoy in this, the great United States of America.
Some of us will be remembering the humble beginnings of “Decoration Day” and say a deep prayer of gratitude for our ancestors, be they military veterans or civilians. It does not matter what the day is named.

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