Monday brings one of the most solemn and, at the same time, most relaxing and fulfilling days in an American family’s calendar. Memorial Day, born out of the incredible carnage of the Civil War, is the day we stop to remember the sacrifices made by all the veterans who have fought and died to preserve our freedoms.
The tradition began at the end of the Civil War when southern women decorated the graves of their fallen heroes. On May 1, 1865, 10,000 people, many of them former slaves, paraded around the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston SC which had been converted in the later years of the war into an outdoor prison and final resting place for some 250 Union soldiers. The procession, led by 3,000 black children carrying flowers, was followed by the formal dedication of the cemetery. The crowds then retired to enjoy picnics and watch parading Union soldiers.
Thus, even before the guns had fallen silent across the entire South, the framework for the modern Memorial Day was laid as both a day of remembrance and as a social occasion.
Memorial Day evolved to become the traditional gateway to the summer with all its pleasures, not the least of which is the backyard picnic. It is a summertime recreation that long pre-dated the Civil War however. As early as the Middle Ages, elegant meals were eaten outdoors as a respite from the hunt. The elegance of the meal and the fact that it was taken as a break from a recreational activity differentiated it from the ploughman’s lunch consumed in a field.
The very word “picnic” carries the message that this is to be a pleasant occasion, one filled with fun, family and food. The original phrase was "pique un niche" meaning to "pick a place"—an outdoor arbor where family or friends could enjoy a happy meal together away from the demands and distractions of daily life.
So, Monday—which is predicted to be a perfect day for a picnic—we should seize the opportunity to come together to remember the incredible sacrifices our veterans have made and then take a break from our own worries and cares. Fire up the barbecue, break out the potato salad and relax in the sun.
To quote Lincoln at Gettysburg, it is “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” For what did our soldiers fight for other than for their families and for their right to gather freely and in safety.