In the Suburbs: The history and meaning of Memorial Day

I have no idea what Fairfield may have done to celebrate the first Memorial Day, designated by Union General John A. Logan on May 30, 1868. I can certainly visualize the ladies and gentlemen of our town spreading colorful flowers or decorating the graves of their fallen family members and friends, who fought in the Civil War. But I’m assuming that if the day was warm and sunny, the town of Fairfield eventually created various celebrations, picnics and a parade to honor all soldiers.

According to information I found from the National Museum of the United States Army, General Logan deserves much of the credit for the establishment of Memorial Day. “The first national celebration of the holiday took place at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried. Originally called Decoration Day, at the turn of the century, it was designated as Memorial Day. In many American towns, the day is celebrated with a parade.

“When a women’s memorial association in Columbus, Mississippi decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union solders on April 25, 1866” (two years before General Logan’s proposed holiday) “this act of generosity and reconciliation prompted an editorial piece, published by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and a poem by Francis Miles Finch, ‘The Blue and the Grey,’ published in the Atlantic Monthly. The practice of strewing flowers on soldiers’ graves soon became popular throughout the reunited nation.”

And in 1971, the federal law was adjusted to make the observance of Memorial Day on the last Monday in May and expanded the honor to all soldiers who died in American wars. I also learned that a few states still celebrate the holiday on May 30.

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy the most about Memorial Day in Fairfield, along with our wonderful parade, is the picnic on the grounds of the Fairfield Museum and History Center, which opened in 2007. Over the three years I worked at the Museum in public relations, I really looked forward to greeting so many of our Fairfield friends and neighbors who came over after the parade. Along with games and exhibits of antique cars, those who preferred to buy their picnic lunches always found great concession stands with food galore.

The great part of the picnic was watching so many people discover the museum for the first time and realize what a great historical treasure it is for Fairfield. And over the years since I’ve left, the Museum has been doing some serious renovations on existing buildings like the old school house and the Sun Tavern.

I’m assuming the picnic will be on this year, as always, so a walk through the Museum’s current exhibitions would certainly be in order, and Memorial Day like other holidays would be complimentary, but donations are always welcome.

I’ll be working on Memorial Day as I have done for the past six years at the Fairfield University Bookstore, and there is a definite upside to being there, even on the holiday. The advantage for me is that I have a regular front row seat for the annual Memorial Day parade, which goes right by the front of the store. We’re usually not overwhelmed by customers that day, so I can always walk to the front of the store or stand outside when the more unusual floats go by.

My only Memorial Day disappointment was in 2016, when the heavy rains came down through the morning. We had no one in the store, but my boss and I were shocked when the town officials canceled the parade entirely. My boss pointed out that Memorial Day parades were traditional and it should take some kind of a state edict to ever cancel one. The rain was beginning to let up by 10:30, but that was pretty disappointing for all the parade participants, who had planned and worked so hard.

Memorial Day this year promises to be a pretty nice day with temperatures at least in the 70s or 80s with sunshine, but that, of course, is in the hands of the weather experts.

My hope for this year and all the years ahead, given our radically divided country, is that Memorial Day will return to the original vision of General John Logan and will be a day of national reconciliation, as well as a day of strewing flowers and decorating the graves of all fallen Fairfield veterans.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at