What Is Decoration Day?

Decoration Day

Nat Cisco

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Nat Cisco of Scottsboro, Alabama, visited Free Home Cemetery in the nearby town of Grant, where the sounds of hymns and music played on a hand-picked string instruments filled the air. “I’ve always loved Decoration Day,” Nat writes in a Facebook post. “For as long as I can remember, mom would take us on the third Sunday in May to both Free Home at Grant and New Friendship near Arab. When I was a kid, I think I just liked leaving church early (during that never-ending sermon), but I grew to love the stories. I enjoy meeting those distant relatives I didn’t know existed and talking about the ones I knew and loved." 

“A beautiful day to reminisce, hear a story about relatives, and see the beauty of a graveyard with new and brightly colored silk flowers on nearly every grave,” he writes of the day traditionally known as Decoration Day. 

But just what is Decoration Day?

According to Alan and Karen Singer Jabbour, who co-authored Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians, “Decoration Day is a late-spring or summer tradition that involves cleaning a community cemetery, decorating it with flowers, holding a religious service in the cemetery, and having dinner on the ground. These commemorations seem to predate the post-Civil War celebrations that ultimately gave us our national Memorial Day. Little has been written about this tradition, but it is still observed widely throughout the Upland South, from North Carolina to the Ozarks.”

In a July 2011 presentation at American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. — Alan was the center’s founding director — Karen shared, “Decoration Day is a national holiday in Liberia, which was settled before the Civil War by former American slaves. It is about cleaning graves, whitewashing them and honoring ancestors, like the Southern Decoration Day. This seems to be its source.”

Karen also noted additional geographical evidence that Decoration Day is a wide-spread rural custom, stretching “westward from the Appalachians to the plains.” “The same features appear from North Carolina to Eastern Oklahoma,” she said. "The annual Decoration date varies from cemetery to cemetery; the ritual meal is called ‘dinner on the ground;’ preaching, prayers and singing are key features; certain foods like stack cake are a Decoration Day tradition; and decorating every grave is an associated custom."

“The Southern folk Decoration Day differs from, but seems to be the inspiration for, both the Northern and Confederate Memorial Days,” she added, referring to what the U.S. now observes as Memorial Day.

In the same presentation, Alan said workdays before a Decoration Day called for work clothes, “but Decoration Day calls for dressing up, especially for the ladies. “During their early part of the decoration, people dressed the graves and also socialize and reflect on loved ones buried there,” said Alan, noting that the day usually includes prayer, singing, a sermon, and communing around a meal, or “dinner on the ground.” 

“Then the formal program dissolves into socializing and reflecting on the cemetery,” he continued.

Lennie Cisco, Nat’s mom, fondly remembers Decoration Days from her youth. “The first thing I remember as a young child was, oh, new clothes — back then that was patent leather shoes, new hats,” she tells Southern Living. “We wore these little gloves that went to our wrists, and frilly socks and frilly dresses. 

“As I got a little bit older I realized what we were doing,” Lennie continues, adding that she and her family would go and make sure the family graves were cleaned off. “The thing is, there's usually more than one cemetery that you go to because, you know, you have Grandmothers’ people, Mama's people, Dad's people. So the whole month of May was spent, every Sunday [at cemeteries]."

Lennie says that when she was a little girl she would "take a big wash tub and fill it all the way with water and cut flowers out of the yard to take and decorate the grave,” noting that was done the Saturdays before Sunday’s decorations. She and her family sometimes made decorations out of crepe paper, too, another Decoration Day tradition. 

“I went with my grandmother and we would go to see these graves, and then I became curious about the people that were there,” says Lennie. “That's when I became interested in history, and she would get out the old pictures and show me the people, and we would talk about them. So even though they died, maybe 50 or 75 years before, I felt like I knew them.”

When her father’s work moved the family to Chicago, they made the trip back to Alabama for Decoration Day.  “We would drive 600 miles from Chicago to come down here for this because my father felt it was, you know, something we needed to do,” Lennie recalls. “You saw all these people that you wouldn't see any other time of the year. It was like a family reunion.” She says the crowds back in those days “were huge.” 

In his post, Nat writes, “Just 20-30 years ago, it would be so crowded. Mom says when she was younger, the streets would be lined with cars on all sides. I remember quartets and dinner on the ground. Today, the crowds are small and the church sits silent, but Free Home Cemetery was filled with the sounds of picked strings and old hymns thanks to Steve and Alan Helton and Mark Askew!”

Lennie is concerned a long-held tradition is fading away. “Now when I go, there's so few people,” she says. “And I know in a few years, they won't do this anymore.” 

“If asked to list important forms of Appalachian folk art, few people would include a decorated cemetery, but the cemetery is seen as an integrated whole, on or after Decoration Day, it’s a compelling panoramic canvas,” Karen Jabbour said at the end of her and Alan’s presentation at the American Folk Life Center.  “A strikingly beautiful folk art created by communities together over time.”

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