When I was young, Memorial Day was the day that was set aside to observe the opening of the family cabin. It signaled the beginning of summer fun at the lake. Traditional observance pushed to the background. As I grew up, I do not ever remember attending a Memorial Day ceremony at school or in the community.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.
As I was thinking about Memorial Day, I wondered about the traditions of Memorial Day, wearing poppies, the 21 gun salute and playing Taps, I realized that I had absolutely no idea about the history of the traditions or what they symbolized. I did a little research.
The red poppy was promoted by an American school teacher, Monina Michael in 1915. She was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. In her own words she explained the inspirational moment that gave birth to the Memorial Day poppy. “I read the poem, which I had read many times previously, and studied its graphic picturization. The last verse transfixed me — ‘To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields’. This was for me a full spiritual experience. It seemed as though the silent voices again were vocal, whispering, in sighs of anxiety unto anguish, ‘To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.
Alone, again, in a high moment of white resolve I pledged to KEEP THE FAITH and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died’.
The tradition of the 21-gun salute surprised me. The firing of rifles at military funerals and at Memorial Day ceremonies is not a 21-gun salute – it is the firing of three rifle volleys. The firing team can consist of any number. In the military, the number is a team of eight, with a noncommissioned officer in charge of the firing detail. The three volleys come from a battlefield custom. The two warring sides would cease hostilities in order to clear the dead from the battlefield. The three volleys signaled that the dead had been properly cared for and removed from the battlefield.
When I went to the military history of Taps, my eyes were really opened. I had always thought Taps was written during the Civil War by a Union captain and played at the funeral of his son who was killed in battle while fighting for the Confederacy. According to the military history, Taps was first used during the Civil War but it was a collaboration between Union General Daniel Butterfield and his bugler, Oliver W. Norton. As the story goes, Butterfield felt the traditional extinguish lights bugle call was too formal. The 24 solemn notes were penned after a seven day battle that claimed the lives of 26,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate. At the end of each day, as the bugler played Taps the soldiers settled into their tents, extinguish lights while listening: “Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.”
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