icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Holidays, Holy Days, and Summer Thoughts

Summer, in the minds of many Americans, begins with Memorial Day and ends with Labor Day, with a nod to Flag Day in June and a great celebration of Independence Day in July. There’s nothing in August, although the 26th of that month marks the enfranchisement of women in all states.

All of the summer holidays, you’ll notice, are uniquely American – unlike New Years, Valentine Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, which we share with other nations around the globe. Even in non-Christian countries, there is a version of Thanksgiving and certainly of the New Year. Places with Christian heritages also celebrate holidays that we do not, and at this time of the year, I’m thinking of the Summer Solstice.

That, you know, is the longest day of the year and the official beginning of summer. It’s always in the third week of June, and this year is June 21. We saw a lot of Summer Solstice activity during a recent trip to Eastern Europe. Some women wear floral wreaths, and some people put greenery on their car grills or roofs. Small trees or tree branches appear everywhere from gas stations to churches. On the actual day, businesses close; people light bonfires and stay up all night. The holiday is so non-commercial that we were reduced to going to McDonald’s for something to eat: In a city the size of Tallahassee, it was the only open place. We discovered it through of one of the few working cab drivers, who took us there.

Actually -- except for warmth in northern Estonia -- there was little need for bonfires because the skies never did get completely dark. I know because we were trapped on an impossible road in rural Latvia and ended up staying in the car all night. The sun never went entirely down, as hours of twilight were followed by hours of daybreak. My Norwegian family is accustomed to June nights in which sunshine never ends. I’d love to experience that – once.

Our Own First-of-Summer Holiday: Memorial Day

But Americans rarely recognize the solstice – either summer or winter – and modern advertisers seem to see even the most sacred of holidays merely as excuses to shop and spend. Even journalists and other opinion-makers contribute to public confusion by equating Memorial Day with Veterans Day.

The May event is less about the professional military than it is about civilians and about soldiers who never viewed themselves as paid warriors. It’s about remembrance, with the particular event to be remembered being the Civil War. Moreover, Memorial Day was almost entirely created by women -- although if you happen to hear a patriotic speech on the day, you are almost guaranteed not to hear anything about women or even the Civil War.

Until relatively recently, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30, not the nearest Monday to it, and it focused on the terrible War Between the States that ended legal slavery. The late spring date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all across the nation, which enabled everyone to join in what still sometimes is called “decoration day” at Southern cemeteries. Flowers – usually grown by women – were central to Memorial Day ceremonies. Placed on graves, they served as reminders of new beginnings and eternal hopes.

Freedom for slaves was bought at a terrible human cost, as our Civil War was by far America’s worst. And as from time immemorial, women cleaned up the mess. They took the gruesome reality of nearly 400,000 dead men, and by promoting cemeteries, led the way in turning blood and gore into something that encouraged serenity and reflection.

Usually named some variant of “women’s relief society,” such groups sprang up in both the North and the South when the war ended. They not only memorialized the dead, but also cared for the war’s disabled and its widows and orphans. In a time prior to today’s well-organized Pentagon, women also ran countless “soldiers’ homes.”

Some were temporary, offering respite to men – often wounded and/or ill – who nonetheless had to walk hundreds of miles home from their last battle station. Other soldiers’ homes proved permanent residences for the war’s disabled and displaced. Almost always, these shelters were in the home of some woman, usually a widow, and she carried the greatest burden of financing them.

Florida As a First

Perhaps the earliest unacknowledged leader in this memorial movement was Ellen Call Long of Tallahassee. You may recall that I mentioned her a couple of weeks ago when her home, “The Grove,” opened to visitors. The last family member to live there was Mary Call Collins, wife of Florida’s progressive governor in the 1960s, Leroy Collins. The dynasty’s founder was Richard Keith Call, who was governor when Florida still was a territory, prior to statehood in 1845.

He opposed secession from the Union, as did Ellen Call Long, but the voices of women and elderly men were ignored when Florida became the third state to secede – enthusiastically, as it was two months prior to Lincoln’s inauguration and by a legislative vote of 62-7. The rebel spirit waned as the war dragged on for four years. Former Governor Call died of natural causes during it, and Governor John Milton killed himself at the war’s end, when he saw the consequences of the conflict that he so thoughtlessly had encouraged.

Unlike the dead governor, Ellen Call Long was there to lead when the fighting ceased in April 1865. Just weeks later, she organized a women’s memorial society to reconcile embittered enemies. On June 22, 1865, Tallahassee women adopted these profound, forgiving, and future-oriented resolutions – a much better analysis of the crisis than any document written by men. Please read it below, hearing the voices of women from more than 150 years ago.

A Memorial to Memorial Day

“The object of this meeting is to initiate a Memorial Association…that shall perpetuate in an honorable manner the memory of the gallant dead… Our purpose is…to reclaim from oblivion and defamation the memory and graves of those who, right or wrong, stood by their country’s cause, firmly believing that…posterity will acknowledge…we did our duty.

“In no invidious spirit do we come; the political storm that shook our country to its foundation, we hope, is passed… We are done with the [Confederate] cause…and are willing to do all that women can do to stem the tide of bitterness...and angry feelings… We will practice and teach forbearance and patience, which must finally bring peace and justice.

“[This] society shall not be ephemeral in its character, but a permanent institution…, establishing an Anniversary of Memorial Observances, the object of which will be to renew and ornament…the graves of soldiers, whether strangers or our own sons…

“This society proposes, moreover, to make provision for the education of as many children of deceased soldiers…as may be compatible with the means of said Association…

“The memories of the past are written in blood, and cannot be effaced. But go forward we must -- crushed, oppressed, and heartsick. Yet we shall not forget.”


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author