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A little history for the summer. Six weeks of patriotic holidays.

May 24, 2012 | By Federal/State Partnership Staff

Memorial Day touches off six weeks of patriotic celebrations that carry through to the Fourth of July..

Memorial Day began three years after the Civil War ended as a time to decorate the graves of veterans. Also called Decoration Day, it was moved from the beginning of May to the end of May with the thought that, by that time, "flowers would be in bloom all over the country," according to the Veterans Administration. After World War I, it was expanded to honor all those who have died in any American wars.

This year marks the 68th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, an intense battle that stretched across 50 miles of heavily fortified French beaches and was the beginning of the end of World War II.

June 14th is Flag Day, commemorating the day in 1777 when the Continental Congress authorized the national flag: "Resolved, that the Flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation." The national Flag Day was presidentially proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

The War of 1812 began two hundred years ago when President James Madison sent what became known as his war message to both houses of Congress on June 1, 1812. NEH's EDSITEment website has the text of this message and three lesson plans about the context of the War of 1812 for grades 9-12. NEH funded the film The War of 1812, which premiered on PBS last fall. The flag that inspired the writing of the poem The Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key is displayed at the National Museum of American History.

As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 begins, three state humanities councils have thus far devoted support and programming to its commemoration. The New York Council for the Humanities has a wide range of funding and programming opportunities about the War of 1812. It is, in fact, the sole statewide organization funding commemorations of this war, much of which took place in New York. The importance of the NYCH in the bicentennial commemorations was noted in the New York Times on March 29, 2012. The Maryland Humanities Council's summer Chautauqua season focuses on the War of 1812 and features the historical characters Rosalie Stier Calvert, the mistress of Riversdale and a member of a wealthy Maryland family whose extensive correspondence illuminated life on the Calvert plantation leading up to and during the War of 1812; Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet who wrote the lyrics of The Star Spangled Banner; President James Madison who led the nation into the War of 1812; Mary Pickersgill, who made the flag that flew over Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore and inspired Key to write The Star Spangled Banner; and British Major General Robert Ross, who routed American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg, burned Washington, and was mortally wounded at North Point on his way to the Battle of Baltimore. The Ohio Humanities Council is encouraging grant "proposals that increase knowledge about Ohio during the War of 1812 and the Civil War."

And then, there's the Fourth of July. Fireworks, hot dogs, the beach, watermelon—and the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This year marks the nation's 237th Fourth of July.   EDSITEment has several lessons on the Declaration and the Fourth:  "Declaring the Causes:  The Declaration of Independence:"  http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/declare-causes-declaration-independence; The Declaration of Independence: “An Expression of the American Mind” http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/declaration-independence-expression-american-mind;"Protest, Revolution, and Independence" http://edsitement.neh.gov/edsitements-4th-july-lessons-protest-revolution-and-independence#node-21677 and  "Frederick Douglass: What to the Slave is the 4th of July?" http://edsitement.neh.gov/launchpad-frederick-douglass-what-slave-fourth-july.

The Star Spangled Banner, traditionally sung on the Fourth, has been popular since it was composed, but it did not become the official National Anthem until 1931.

The history of the establishment of federal and national holidays is a long one. Although Congress can proclaim holidays, those proclamations cover only federal employees and the District of Columbia. States must adopt the holidays individually. Each federal holiday has been selected to honor particular events or sentiments that have contributed to making the United States and its people a nation. The four holidays that first gained national and statewide acceptance were New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. The initial federal holiday law was passed in 1870.


This story was published in the May 2012 Federal/State Partnership "Working Together" e-newsletter. See the archive of "Working Together" e-newsletters.