Memorial Day: the officially unofficial start of summer. A much needed long weekend and time for outdoor parties with your peeps. However, in our excitement (especially as the country starts to emerge from the pandemic!) it is easy to forget the actual reason we have today off. Why exactly do we have Memorial Day?
The U.S. Memorial Day was originally intended to be a day to honor soldiers lost in the Civil War. It grew out of traditions that had begun before the war and that increased during the conflict, especially but not exclusively in Southern states. Throughout time, cultures have dedicated special events or days to honor those lost in battle. And after losing an estimated 750,000 (combined) soldiers in four years, the country had a lot of mourning to do.
In 1868, Major General John A. Logan*, in his position as the head of Union veterans’ organization the Grand Army of the Republic, established May 30th as a day to decorate the graves of the soldiers. Why he chose this date seems to have been lost to history. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affair’s says “It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.” History.com says it is because the date “wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle” (which is incorrect, according to this list). Logan’s proclamation supports the flower theory:
“The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion…Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime…”General Orders No. 11, Grand Army of the Republic. John A. Logan, Commander in Chief.
The original order does not explicitly state if the day should be called Memorial Day or Decoration Day–the traditional name for a day to “strew with flowers” soldier’s graves. By the century’s close, most states had adopted Decoration/Memorial Day as an official holiday. But it was not yet a federal holiday! That would take seven more decades.
As the living memory of the Civil War faded, the nation faced another major war. After World War I, Memorial Day expanded to be a day to honor everyone who had died serving the United States in war. But, it was still not an official holiday. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson made Proclamation 3727, further formalizing Memorial Day (May 30th) as a day to honor our war dead, adding it should be a day that we pray for peace (oh the irony).
And finally, in 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This also gave us the officially unofficial end of summer: Labor Day Weekend. And, more controversially, it created Columbus Day. At long last, Memorial Day was a federal holiday!
Bringing Back Memory to Memorial Day
However, the move to Monday also eroded the original intention of the holiday. As we focused more on gearing up for summer, we lost focus of the reason for the holiday. Realizing this, in 2000, Congress passed the “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.” At 3pm local time on Memorial Day, the nation is encouraged to take a moment to honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Side Note: For those living in some former Confederate states, the tradition of memorializing the Confederate dead–separate from any other war or group–continues as a mandated holiday. This was news to your “Yankee” (by birth if not entirely by ancestry) author. It adds difficult context to our country’s current woes.
19th Century Celebrations
How did our ancestors celebrate the day? In the years following the Civil War, a general pattern was followed. There would be a formal decorating of soldier’s graves, followed by speeches commemorating the event, and possibly other activities like parades. The details depended on your community. In this summary of celebrations from 1872, the events ranged from “simple and brief” in Cincinnati to the “most imposing demonstration of the kind ever known in this part of the country” in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)** was exceptionally active in organizing these activities.
By the turn of the century, the GAR was sharing space with their sister organization, the Women’s Relief Corps. After the Spanish American War in 1898, we also start to see the shift to a more inclusive Memorial Day. This 1901 article mentions commemorating the Spanish American War dead and accurately predicts that “in a few years May 30 will probably be observed in all parts of the United States as a day when tribute is to be paid to all soldiers who fell while fighting for a cause they believed to be holy.” Of course, they didn’t know that part of the impetus would be The Great War. 😕
Interestingly, the article also switches between calling it Decoration Day and Memorial Day and directly addresses the customs of the South–despite being from Omaha. They also give shade to New Orleans for being weird Europeans who use fake flowers and “strange emblems” instead of fresh flowers. Is this anti-Catholic? Anti-French? Anti-Old World in general? Surely not anti-beignet! I love these little glimpses into the past. They are windows to a different time and different ideas.
For more historic newspaper goodness, check out the free Chronicling America collections at the Library of Congress. Your local library (or the library near your ancestors) may also have free online collections. And there are a number of paid subscriptions, such as Newspapers.com (an Ancestry subsidiary).
Curious if your ancestor was in the GAR or Women’s Relief Corps? Check out the GAR Records Project or the FamilySearch resource page. Also try googling for the corresponding state(s) that your ancestors lived in. Often the records are held at local libraries and archives.
The Impact of War
Looking at my family tree, I’ve had some very lucky ancestors. Despite my parents, grandparents, great uncles, and nearly every generation back to the Civil War having fought in every war, they all survived! In just the Civil War, all four Union Soldiers and both Confederate Soldiers managed to make it through to the other side.
However, this doesn’t mean that they made it out whole. From the tuberculosis that plagued my father’s family for generations to permanent disabilities to what we would now call PTSD–the soldiers who survive a war don’t entirely leave the war behind. This is still a major issue for our troops and veterans today. If you would like to help, check out the Wounded Warrior Project for ways to assist those in need.
What are your thoughts? Do you have any ritual for honoring our fallen service members? Does your family tree have any soldiers? Did they survive a war? Bear the scars of their service? Let me know below!
Before I sign off, I kindly request you take a moment at 3pm to honor those we lost. Whatever your opinion on war, these men and women lost their lives and their families lost their loved ones serving our country.
May you have a safe and great Memorial Day!
American Flags: Stock photo from Canva.com.
Arlington Burial: Burial of Sergeant Major of the Army George W. Dunaway at Arlington National Cemetery, 2008. Wikipedia. Public Domain, photo taken as work of a U.S. Army employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties.
Sheet Music: “Soldier’s Memorial Day” sheet music. 1870. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Public Domain.
Patriotic Souvenir: “Memorial Day Souvenir Embossed Postcard c1910”. From Pinterest, PIN 259168153529205532.
GAR Parade: Parade of the Grand Army of the Republic. Washington, D.C., September 20th 1892. The Jay T. Last Collection of Graphic Arts and Social History, Huntington Digital Library.
Burial of the Dead: “Burial of the dead on the Antietam battlefield” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 18 October 1862. From Wikimedia Commons.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I wanted to share a few fun videos to help connect us with Irish culture on this day of celebrating all things Ireland. 🙂
One of the big events that drove Irish immigration was the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849. In the end, well over a million people immigrated from Ireland, with many of them landing in the United States. Their influence can still be felt in our culture today, from our music to the food and beverages we consume. To say nothing of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations!
Before we get to the drink, let’s start by putting some food in our bellies. Max Miller, the charming creator of the Tasting History channel, brings us a traditional Irish Stew recipe. He also includes an excellent overview of the famine itself. If this is your first Tasting History video, you are in for a treat!
Now that we have the food taken care of, we can move on to the drink. While beer is more common, whiskey is an important feature of Irish culture. Looking at early Irish immigrants, even on the frontier whiskey was being distilled for pleasure, to preserve grain crops, and to turn a little profit.
At the Locust Grove Historic Site outside of Louisville, Kentucky, they have recreated a historic whiskey still. And, the fabulous crew at Townsends made a video on the basic distilling process of this early frontier whiskey. Spoiler Alert: it’s not aged in barrels!
For a little context before we watch, Locust Grove was built by Irish immigrant William Croghan, whose wife Lucy Clark was the sister of both Revolutionary War Brigadier General George Rogers Clark and William Clark of the famous duo Lewis & Clark. Like many wealthy people at that time in that region, the Croghans did own slaves and the house was built with enslaved labor. For the history of the house and its people, check out their very informative website.
If you enjoyed that video, Townsends has several others filmed at Locust Grove. And if you enjoyed the presenter Brian Cushing, he was featured in a Townsends live stream back in 2019 (where the making/not making whiskey is explained further).
I hope this was a nice little distraction for your St. Patty’s Day!
Do you have Irish ancestry? How do you celebrate it? Let me know below! 🙂
Just a quick note to say we made it!!
May this year be a much better year for everyone! Stay safe and stay tuned for some organization tips to get the year started right! They will hopefully be more helpful than the weight-loss tips we forget by January 15th. 😀
In the interim, check out New Yorkers going wild on New Year’s in this footage from 1938! Have you or your family ever been to Times Square for New Year’s Eve? Let me know below!
Image Credit: 2021 Images created with Canva
That magical time of year is upon us, when we are frantically trying to get everything done for the holidays. Added bonus: all things 2020 are making the season even more difficult! So let’s take a much needed break and chill out with some traditional Christmas music.
While our modern Christmas often looks quite different from our ancestors’ holiday season, we do have one thing in common: Christmas Carols. Music, like food, is a way we can reach across the ages and experience what people in the past experienced. Through our shared musical history, we can connect in a very visceral way.
For today, we’re focusing on carols found in the colonies that have English/British origins. This represents the largest population group in the colonies and seems to have the greatest proportion of carols we still enjoy today. Of course, some colonists weren’t so OK with the singing and dancing–conservative Puritan New England was not down with the revelry! But most colonists incorporated music into their daily lives, just as we do now.
For these performances, I chose versions that would approximate what the colonists would have heard. No giant choirs singing at Westminster or modern pop interpretations. There would have been improvisation but no jazz, blues, or rock influences since those genres didn’t exist yet.
Without further ado, grab some eggnog, mulled cider, or hot chocolate and check these out these carols!
The First Noël
“The First Noël” has a bit of a fuzzy history. The song is probably Cornish from the Early Modern period (~15-16th centuries). And it is possibly based on an even older musical style from medieval France. Side note: I’m a huge music geek. We won’t discuss the rabbit holes that happened during this research! 🤐
I like this performance because it is small and intimate. It would have been easy for colonials to perform in this style at home or in church. The guitar, in several historic forms, was available at the time, as were a number of other string instruments.
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
One of the oldest known carols, going back to at least the 16th century, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is also one of the most enduring. Questions of the language use and the tricky rhyme in the third verse aside, this would have been a common song among the English-language colonists.
The Coventry Carol
Another oldie but goody, “Coventry Carol” is also from the 16th century or earlier. This time, we’re going with a small choral group (renowned artists The Sixteen) to represent the scale of colonial churches. We didn’t have giant cathedrals like Westminster or York in the colonies. Instead, the churches were built for our smaller communities.
I Saw Three Ships
This is a fun way to end our quick exploration. Here we have a great example of the improvisation that would have been popular in the time period. Printed music was expensive and a lot of musicians would have learned by ear and then creatively filled in the gaps.
The song itself is probably from the 17th century (or, like the others, possibly earlier). “I Saw Three Ships” is one of my favorites to play because of the jaunty tune. Lindsey Stirling (sitting still!) and crew add a Gaelic feel to it, which would have been common in some regions of the colonies.
I hope you found these entertaining and just what you needed this week. 🙂
Which of these did you like most? In general, what is your favorite holiday song? Is it a traditional tune like these or are you more of a Santa Baby fan? Does your family have any “must be played” holiday music? Let me know below!
Have a happy and safe Holiday Season! 😀
I Saw Three Ships Sheet Music: From William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern Published London: Richard Beckley, 1833. Available on HymnsAndCarolsOfChristmas.com.
First Nowell Sheet Music: From William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern Published London: Richard Beckley, 1833. Available on HymnsAndCarolsOfChristmas.com.
Country Christmas: Pinterest: Colonial Williamsburg Education board.
As we manage a new normal for our Halloween, let’s see how our ancestors used to celebrate!
Like Christmas, Halloween as we know it today began in the 19th century. They were the masters of decoration and party planning! Much of our secular symbolism and traditions come from this era. Cute “spooky” images? Yep. Commercial holiday products? Of course. Magazine articles that make your own efforts pale in comparison? Food Network and Instagram have nothing on the Victorians!
In 1891, the American women’s magazine Ingall’s Home & Art published a very extensive article on how to celebrate Halloween in style. Included are a list of activities and games, plus a full menu for what appears to be the party of the season. Dancing, courtship games, fortune telling, tongue salad. This party had it all. 😄
Actually, times haven’t changed that much. The article implies a true hostess should hand-paint each hand-made invitation. To be fair, the overall theme of the magazine is art and decoration. But you can also imagine this being in a YouTube video on how to plan the perfect party. Maybe this is how I go viral?
Before we dive into the menu, lets take a quick glance at the suggested activities:
Per the introduction, “Halloween dancing parties are much in vogue at present” and the use of dance cards–“a quaint device”–are still used in the country and in an unspecified “modified form” in the city. However, “dancing may be indulged in until the supper hour,” after which we move onto the food and the various games.
Bobbing for Apples
This is not quite what you would expect! First, it is for the gentlemen only. The game involves using your teeth to grab apples suspended from the ceiling on a rod hanging on a rope. For an added challenge, there are burning candles ready to drip hot wax on the player who doesn’t keep the rod straight! The man must attempt to secure the apple while avoiding tipping the candle enough to burn himself with wax.
Helpfully, we are reminded to protect our carpets from spilled wax. The author indicates, “This [game] is a decided improvement, in every way upon floating the apples in a tub of water, as the task of securing them is so damaging to both clothing and carpets.”
The BBC Series Edwardian Farm recreated the candle version as part of their Halloween festivities. Peter for the win!
Fortune-telling activities at Halloween go back centuries and it is fun to see what was in vogue in the 1890s. The Cup of Fate, For Good or Ill, Fortune in the Meal Bag, Kaling, and the very traditional Roasting Chestnuts are given as possible options. The methods are different but all are meant to discover who you will–or won’t–marry. Would you like to partake in these games?
More fire! The hostess (or more likely her housemaid) makes little candle boats out of walnut shell halves, including scenting them with lavender. During the party, each boat is marked with the initials of a guest. The little boats are then lit and set afloat in a tub of water. Next, the water is disturbed enough to create some motion of the boats. The fate of your boat reveals your own, from longevity to partnerships!
My personal favorites are the dancing (though I fear my dance card would be empty once they saw me in action!) and the walnut shell fairy boats. It seems a tad dangerous by our standards but a lot more fun (and safe!) than bobbing for apples. Which are your favorites?
The full spread, as recommended by the magazine:
This is not a low cost affair. It is meant for either a comfortably middle class home or to be an aspiration for the rest of us. The instructions state that this is for a “large dancing party.” They do recommend that for smaller parties or one where only games are played (no dancing), a simpler bill of fare would be appropriate. Dancing does build up the appetite.
While this menu is often shared in blog posts, what is left out are the associated recipes. One that really stands out is the Halloween or Dumb Cake (dumb at the time meant “can’t speak”, not a statement on the person’s intelligence). This is yet another divination option, using an elaborate method to bake a cake with special prizes inside. Most importantly, the entire process must be done in silence!
Supper was usually a late repast. This explains the heavy emphasis on dessert items. I would not be interested in tongue salad but I do embrace the three-cake concept!
Trying It At Home
One of the best ways we can connect with the past is through food. With Halloween here and most of my time and budget tied up in lockdown prepping (2020 is a seriously weird place), I opted to try out the Baked Apples, Browned and Glazed.
The original recipe was a bit vague. Alas, this is the way of historic recipes. Our ancestors were extraordinary: they either had deep foundational knowledge or were culinary adventurers! Thankfully, I am happy to channel my inner Townsends and did some research and experimenting.
This is what I ended up with:
4 Granny Smith Apples–peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 in. slices
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp salted butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven is heating up, peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/2 inch slices. Place them in a 2-quart cooking dish. Make a simple syrup with the water and sugar, over low heat, stirring frequently. Once the syrup is blended and heated through, turn off the heat and add the butter. Stir butter until melted and incorporated. Pour syrup over apples and stir to coat. Bake 30-40 minutes, until tender, stirring occasionally.
My original experiment used 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup butter. This was entirely too much liquid with the juice from the apples. I also baked them covered, which resulted in basically stewed apples instead of baked. The reduced syrup and no cover should balance everything out.
In the end, they are quite tasty and make a nice snack or condiment. The hardest part for me was not adding any cinnamon or other fall spices! But they didn’t really need them. The brown sugar and butter did the trick. As they often do. 😉
Which of the recipes would you like to make? Which would you absolutely leave out?
And would your late 19th-century ancestors been able to have such a lavish party? Or would they have had a more modest affair? Mine definitely would have thrown a smaller party on a farmer’s or miner’s budget. They would have also probably included some beer!
Thank you joining for me on this quick trip back to the 19th century. Please let me know below what you thought of the journey!
Happy Halloween!! Best wishes for a wonderful and safe holiday!
Merry Halloween Black Cat: 1909 Postcard, Ellen H. Clapsaddle artist. Found on Pinterest. Public Domain.
Party Invitation: Circa 1920s Party Invite. Found on SheWalksSoftly. Copyright unknown.
Three Bowls: “Halloween Greetings” postcard, Victorian. From article, “Browse These Spooky Vintage Cards“, last modified Nov. 2, 2018. Presented by The Kansas City Public Library. Public Domain.
Chestnut Poem: “Halloween Postcard HIR 363-3 Bat Acorn People Fantasy Vintage” from Pinterest (based on expired ebay bid). Public Domain.
Dancing Instruction: Illustrations from Dancing and its relations to education and social life with a new method of instruction, including a complete guide to the cotillion (German) with 250 figures, by Allen Dodworth. 1900. Publisher: Harper & Brothers, New York. Library of Congress Music Division, Control #00002075. Pages 300-301. Public Domain.
Bobbing Party: “Hallowe’en Festivities from an Old English Print” from the The Book of Hallowe’en, by Kelly, Ruth Edna. 1919. Publisher Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co. WikiCommons. Cropped and rotated for viewing. Public Domain.
Grewsome Halloween Owl: From the article, “The Witch’s Hour” from the Los Angeles [Sunday] herald. 24 Oct. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Public Domain.
Ingall’s Home & Art Magazine Clips: Ingall’s Home and Art Magazine. United States, J. F. Ingalls., October 1891. Available on Google Books, in the collection “Volume 4, November 1890-October 1891, pages 501-505. Public Domain.
Cooking photos ©Michelle Keel 2020