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The History Of Memorial Day

The holiday began after the Civil War

Traditionally, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer and a weekend full of parades, hamburgers and long road trips. Most importantly, it’s a day to remember those who have died in defense of this country, although the holiday had a rocky start in this regard.

Despite its status as a national holiday, the origins of what was once known as “Decoration Day” are shrouded in incomplete historical records and the division between the North and the South caused by the Civil War.

According to USMemorialDay.org, the original name for the holiday was inspired when women adorned Confederate soldiers’ gravestones after the Civil War ended. But tensions between the two regions caused the holiday to be stuck in limbo as a national celebration for more than 50 years

Memorial Day was first proclaimed in 1868 when the graves of soldiers buried at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. were decorated. By 1890, all the northern states adopted the holiday, but the South refused and celebrated the dead in their own ways. That changed in the early 20th century, when the holiday was changed to also honor the people who died in World War I.

In 1971, the U.S. Congress officially made Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Waterford Celebrates

While Memorial Day wasn’t a national holiday until the 1970s, it’s been celebrated much longer than that in Westport. Bill Vornkahl remembers marching with the Staples High School band in 1946. Now, the Korea War era veteran has organized the parade for years. He isn't sure how long that parade ran before that.

The parade has been getting bigger over the years, and he said that 70 units, including eight bands, are involved, with various organizations still calling to see if they can get in. Last year, there were 67 units.

The popularity of the parade is for a variety of reasons, and he said that almost everyone in town is in either in the parade or watching it.

“It’s to honor the servicemen to gave their lives in defense of our country and of course, we have a lot of children that march he said,” he said. “It’s because of a lot of things happening in the country and they want to want to honor the veterans. The services after the parade [which include speeches] have been getting more and more crowded.”

Every year a grand marshal is chosen. This year, the recipient is Tracy Sugarman, a World War II veteran who went on to become a renowned illustrator.

Vornkahl said he tries to allow everyone to march, but he has one strict rule: ., even that one time when the grand marshal was late.

“He had to run to catch up,” he said.

Vacation

The holiday is also a time to travel. According to AAA Southern New England, more than 34.9 million people in the United States will travel to celebrate the start of summer. Despite the high gas prices, that’s a .02 percent increase of 100,000 trips from last year.

While high gas prices make for water cooler conversations, AAA reports that six out of ten people say the cost of gas won’t impact their travel plans. Of those people who will have to modify travel plans, 70 percent plan to scale back their plans by saving more money or taking a shorter trip.

Here are some more stats: 

  • Approximately 30.9 million (88 percent) will travel by auto. Last year, 31 million drove. 
  • Approximately 2.93 million (8 percent) will fly, even though airfares are expected to increase 14 percent. That’s an 11.5 percent increase from last year
  • The remaining 3 percent plan to travel by other modes of transportation such as rail, bus or boat.

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