“Dinner on the Ground”: Why We Have Picnics On Memorial Day

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Gentle reader, we pause today to observe Memorial Day.

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established “Decoration Day” as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. It is believed that May 30th was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

picnic by Maurice Prendergast 600 pngPicnic, Maurice Prendergast, 1915

Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountains. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles.

People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with kinfolk and others. There often is a religious service and a “dinner on the ground,” the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the “memorial day” idea.

Our nation may have shifted to barbeque as the national Memorial Day tradition (and a kick-off to summer) but we like to think of the custom as having its roots in “dinner on the ground.”

Have a safe and peaceful Memorial Day!