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Memory Lane

Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: Decoration Day 1895

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Memorial Day has not always been a three-day weekend filled with social gatherings, get-always and merchandise sales. In fact, it was not even Memorial Day about 100 years ago. More than a century ago, it was known as Decoration Day filled with regimented ceremonies of remembrance in honor of the fallen soldier. But, the origins of the holiday date to the Romans times and early Christian beliefs.

From those ancient times through the mid-1800s, the holiday was known as Ascension Day. The holiday and its name were in honor of the bodily ascent of Jesus from Earth to Heaven. For centuries, the 40th day after Easter was filled with great feasts, celebrations, and pageantry in honor of his ascension. Also, the graves of the dearly departed were cleaned up and decorated with flowers and boughs. 

In more recent past, between 1700 and the 1800s, the celebrations changed to solemn occasions and ceremonies. After the Civil War, General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, or Union Army, felt a holiday commemorating the fallen Union soldier was in order. So, he established Decoration, or Memorial, Day on May 30, which was Ascension Day in that particular year, 1868.

For many decades, most communities observed the holiday with military pomp and circumstance. The day was a solemn and formal commemoration of the dead with no feasts or parties.

In the traditional Victorian style, these Decoration Day ceremonies were overflowing with finely tuned and elaborate details. The title of the Napa Daily Journal article, dated June 1, 1895, underscores this exuberance. It said, “Decorating Graves, Memorial Day Elaborately Observed in Napa - A Parade and Public Exercises at the Cemetery.”

The article reported, “The beautiful custom of devoting the 30th of May to the decorating of the graves of the dead was more elaborately observed in Napa this year than on any previous occasion.” 

Plans for the day and its activities were made well in advance. The main organizers were members of the Kit Carson Post of the G.A.R. The Women’s Relief Corp., Native Sons, and Daughters of the Golden West also actively participated in the planning stages.

Special invitations had been extended by the Kit Carson Post to Napa’s scholars, teachers, and other dignitaries to join in the exercises. A general invitation was extended to all the local schools and organizations to participate in the parade. The procession started in Napa, at 2 p.m., and ended at Tulocay Cemetery.

The 1895 article briefly described the parade: “The members of the Kit Carson, G.A.R. escorted by Battery B (the local National Guard) and headed by the Napa Military Band, marched to the cemetery to hold their annual memorial service. One hundred school children carrying flags and bouquets and a large number of citizens in carriages brought up the rear of the procession.”

Once at Tulocay, services, conducted by Reverend E.H. King, were held at the G.A.R. plot. According to the article, 33 veterans of the Civil War and other conflicts were buried at that site. The ceremony included a men’s choir and girls’ chorus.

Following those vocalists, as the military band played, the graves were decorated with flowers and flags. Mr. S.E. Holden delivered an oration and recited an original poem in preparation for the finale.

The Journal wrote, “A firing squad from Battery B fired a salute of three volleys over the graves of the veterans, thus ending the exercises.”

Although the ceremony drew a large crowd of participants and observers, there were many other Napans who came to the cemetery to quietly pay their respects to departed family and friends.

The Journal acknowledged their presence. “Tulocay Cemetery was thronged with people from early in the morning until late in the afternoon. Few there were who did not have a task of love to perform in decorating the grave of some departed friend.”

In reflection upon the day and its significance, the Journal touched on  Mother Nature’s contributions to the quality of Decoration, or Memorial, Day 1895. “The day itself was a perfect decoration. The sun shone brightly and the air was balmy. A gentle breeze wafted across the burial ground carrying the perfume of the thousands of blossoms that were strewn upon the graves.”

This holiday reminds us of those people from our past and the special moments spent with them that are nearly forgotten in the rush of our daily lives. It is also a time to honor those we never had known but who made the ultimate sacrifice for us as a nation.

Happy Memorial Day to you!

Take a look back at how Napa Valley communities have honored the fallen in Memorial Day observances over the years.

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Rebecca Yerger is a Napa historian and writer. 

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